Crafting a Competitive Graduate School Application

Content Created by Dr Valerie Carmichael (Assistant Dean of the Miami University Graduate School) and adapted by Dr Dominik Konkolewicz

Note the materials and content below are guidelines for applications to graduate programs. Requirements for individual graduate programs may vary, and you are encouraged to check the information provided by the individual institutions and departments you are considering applying to. The content developers and MACRO bear no responsibility or liability for the content on this website matching the application requirements for any specific program. If in doubt please check the requirements specific to the degree program you are interested in on the institution’s own webpages.

What is a Graduate Degree?

Graduate Studies result in an advanced degree beyond the bachelors

Why should I consider a graduate Program?

A graduate degree can prepare or train you for a career in research or in certain professional programs. In fact many careers (e.g. academics, physicians, lawyers, certain project managers) require a graduate degree. During graduate studies you will be more independent & focused on your area of interest

What Sort of Time Commitment is expected?

Typical commitments are 2 to 3 years Masters degree (MA or MS), and 4 to 6 years for a Doctoral degree (PhD)

Where do I start?

Ask yourself these questions

What do I want to do / what is my passion or interests?

How much independence do I need or want in my life?

How much money do I want to make?

Where do I want to work or where do I want to study? (A 5 year graduate program is a substantial time commitment)

Masters or PhD (or both)? If Masters, thesis or non-thesis? Consider both the

Talk to faculty and other mentors in your area of interest

You can ask mentors the following types of questions:

What graduate programs (potential advisors) would you recommend?

What skills are needed or suggested to be competitive in this area of study? For instance, a chemistry program may need more synthetic skills, while an engineering program may need more mathematics or characterization skills

Consider Summer internship programs

Extensive research opportunities, one-on-one with a faculty member

Great preparation for Graduate School and gives insights into graduate school life

MACRO provides resources for identifying summer internships through NSF research experiences for undergraduates (REU) programs, other government internships, and industry opportunities.

Suggested Timeline and Preparation

Freshman Year (1st Year Undergraduate)

Explore and possibly join a research group at your home institution

Sophomore Year (2nd Year Undergraduate)

Consider your goals, determine your passion, & create a Resume

Apply for Summer internship programs

Strongly consider research at your institution during semester

Junior Year (3rd Year Undergraduate)

Start researching graduate programs and discuss places that are likely to be a good fit with your mentors

Determine the required application materials for the programs you will apply to

Take on substantial undergraduate research roles

Apply for Summer internship opportunities, e.g. REU or national lab internships (~Feb each year)

Senior Year (4th Year Undergraduate)

Summer before – potentially take required tests (e.g., Graduate Records Exam [GRE]). Note many departments are no longer requiring the GRE scores as part of the application

Identify 3 people who know you well and can write you a STRONG letter of recommendation

Continue your undergraduate research

Send in application materials, with typical due dates between Dec 1st and March 1st for an August start date

What is typically expected?

Graduate programs expect you to do your research on the program

Find the graduate program online and identify its fit for your interests

Determine what is required and the deadline to apply

Contact the program with questions only after reviewing the website

Most grad applications are online

Application fees range from $35 to $100

Supplemental materials required vary based on the department, program or institution

What is needed in a Typical Application

A typical applications consists of the following content (although requirements vary by program and institution):

Online application content, applicant information and application fee

Undergraduate Transcript(s)

Personal Statement

Resume / CV

Letters of Recommendation (Typically 3 are needed)

Test Scores (e.g., GRE)- Note many graduate programs are waiving or phasing out the GRE requirement.

Identifying potential advisors at your proposed graduate institution


Grade reports from all post secondary institutions will be needed

Most graduate programs have a GPA requirement (In most cases a minimum GPA of 2.75 to 3.0+ is given)

Personal Statement

An opportunity to provide additional information about:

Academic interests and career Goals

Relevant experiences (e.g., work, research, volunteer)

Include what makes you unique

Not too personal (i.e. try to avoid information that may be private or you wouldn’t want to share at an interview, etc)

It is important to describe why the program you are applying for is a good fit for your academic and career goals

If a program asks a specific set of questions, ensure you answer the question

Make sure you Reread and review before submitting, Do your best work, grammar is important

Resume / Curriculum Vitae (CV)

A resume or CV is a list of accomplishments, skills and activities with dates (where appropriate). This should include:

Academic history

Experiences related to your field

Professional associations

Relevant awards

Skills (especially translatable skills)

Include research and work experience (where applicable) and other relevant experiences

Detailed differences between a resume and CV can be found here[DK4] , however, the general consensus is that a Resume is a summary of key skills, training and experience, while a CV is literally a course of your professional life and includes almost all professional activities

Letters of Recommendation

Typically 3 letter of recommendation are needed. Letter writers should be faculty members, project directors (government or industry references) or a research advisor

Ask if they can write you a strong letter of recommendation. If they cant write you a strong letter, it is better to ask for a different letter writer.

They can collaborate with people who you may have worked more closely with such as a graduate student who knew you better but the letter should come from the faculty members, project directors or a research advisor

Letter should address your: Academic success, activities, future plans, what stands out about you, research skills.

Provide your letter writer

Your resume/CV, list of accomplishments, grade reports

Information on how to submit the letter of recommendation (mostly online but some still use paper mail)

Date the letter is due


Standardized Tests. Many schools require standardized tests

Graduate Records Exam (GRE)

Sometimes discipline specific tests are needed.

May or may not be required, varies by Program. You can search #GRExit in Twitter to find programs that are either waiving or eliminating the GRE scores from their application materials.

Determine early if needed for each program

If needed for your program of interest, do not rush to take, prepare and take a class, if possible

Online test prep at

Official scores take up to 3 weeks

Many programs accept unofficial scores

Potential Graduate Advisors

If possible collaborate with current or former mentors to identify good potential advisors and programs. You can contact potential advisors by email.

Send an email, discuss their research, your interest in their work and ask if they are admitting new students

Many applications ask for the names of faculty or potential advisors

If yes, consider scheduling a time to visit campus or make a phone call

If you are admitted to a given graduate program, there is often an opportunity to visit that department. This can be an opportunity to meet in person and discuss potential projects and meet current graduate students.

After a visit send a thank you note to anyone who spent significant time with you

Application Spreadsheet

You will likely apply to several programs. It is a good idea to have a spreadsheet to keep track of application, requirements and status. Once you decide where to apply

Create an excel spreadsheet to capture application info

Column Headers

Application materials (e.g., transcript, personal statement, resume)

Include application deadline dates

Letter writers and whether they have submitted their letters

Row Headers

Institutions and Grad Program Major

Include City & State

Any contact person for the program

Funding and Support

For most graduate programs, you will receive some kind of stipend which should cover basic living expenses.

Graduate Assistantship (GA)

Usually includes a tuition waiver and stipend

Service requirement, usually teaching, research or administrative  (depends on department or program). Typically these duties are 18 to 20 hours/week

Some type of assistantship should be offered at most programs

Other possible funding mechanisms include Institutional Funding or fellowships, which are similar to assistantships, but without service

Financial Aid – only loans for graduate students

Offer(s) of Admission

Starting in ~ Jan-Feb you will receive admission decisions. These may be admit, decline or waitlist. With an admission you should ask (unles the letter already addresses)

Ask about funding and student support included with admission

If you have multiple admission offers, try to compare ‘apples to apples’ considering

Cost of living in the area (e.g. a 3% higher stipend in a location with high const of living may lead to tighter budgets)

Health insurance rates

Funding package

Potential advisors

Institutional and department rankings

Alignment of a given group or program with your career goals

It is important to note that programs cannot require your decision before April 15th

After deciding which program best fits your Career goals, confirm your admission decision & start the next phase of your career and professional development –  Congratulations!!