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How to Prepare a Strong Graduate School Application

Preparing a strong applicationYou’ve found the perfect graduate program—one with a world-class faculty whose research excites you, an academic experience that will challenge you, a diverse and inclusive culture, a supportive environment with outstanding faculty and peer mentors, and lots of resources to help you succeed no matter which career paths you want to pursue. Now it’s time to convince that program you are a great match for it as well. Here are some suggestions to help you prepare a strong application:

Also, be sure to check out this collection of insights from Duke graduate students and faculty about preparing a strong graduate school application.

 

Preparing for Graduate School during Your Undergraduate Years

The process of strengthening your graduate school application starts while you are still an undergraduate. Here is a timeline and suggestions for avenues to explore while you are pursuing your undergraduate degree.

Freshman and sophomore years

  • Assess your interests, abilities, and career goals
  • Identify a mentor 
  • Look into graduate school preparation events (e.g., boot camps, pre-application campus visits, summer programs)

Junior year

  • Gather information on graduate programs
  • Gather application materials
  • Learn about entrance examination requirements and dates
  • Investigate application deadlines

Pre-Senior Summer

  • Narrow your list of graduate schools
  • Investigate funding sources
  • Write the first draft of your statement of purpose
  • Contact recommendation sources

Senior year (Start Early)

  • Select the schools you want to apply to
  • Register for entrance exams
  • Submit completed applications

 

Steps and Recommended Timetable for Completing Your Graduate School Applications

  • Make arrangements to obtain your transcripts for upload into application (8 weeks before application deadline)
  • Make arrangements for entrance exam scores to be sent (8 weeks before application deadline)
  • Contact recommenders to request strong letters of recommendation (4-6 weeks before application deadline)
  • Prepare final versions of your statement of purpose
  • Review federal requirements for financial aid
  • Complete and submit applications with required fee (at least two weeks prior to the deadline)

 

What is Evaluated during the Graduate School Application Process?

  • Your fit with the department or program in terms of research goals, work culture, or other measures
  • Relevant research or internship experience
  • Statement of purpose
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Undergraduate grades
  • GRE scores
  • Patterns of academic study and relevance of prior coursework to proposed graduate study

 

Tips for a Strong Statement of Purpose for Graduate School Applications

Many graduate programs require a personal statement or statement of purpose as part of your application. As you write that statement, keep these suggestions in mind:

  • Make the statement about you, your skills, your potential, and your interest in graduate studies in a particular department/program at a particular institution.
  • Avoid misrepresentations and grandiose statements.
  • Engage the reader using active words.
  • Avoid negative or judgmental statements (which usually come across as rude or arrogant).
  • Do not describe in detail what you have done. Briefly state and explain what you have learned, how it led to your interests, or how it has prepared you for success in graduate school.
  • State why you are interested in graduate school and in a particular field of study.
  • Share your motivation and career goals.
  • Share why you have chosen to apply to a particular institution.
  • If possible, indicate faculty with whom you have an interest to work.
  • Do your homework: Know the school. Know the admissions and enrollment statistics for your department or program of interest. Know application deadlines.
  • Avoid form essays.
  • Follow the application directions and guidelines for each institution.

 

Acing the Interview

Most Ph.D. programs require an interview—whether on campus or via videoconference—for applicants they are considering for admission, and some master’s programs may require an interview as well. This is your chance to meet with faculty who might potentially sponsor your graduate study. It’s also an opportunity to gather more information about the program. Here is some guidance to help you make a good impression and get the most out of the experience.

  • Before your interview, look closely at the website for the schools and departments you’re applying to. 
  • Show that you have done your homework on the program’s faculty’s research and be able to talk about specific faculty whose work interests you.
  • Be prepared to talk about: 
    • Your research interest
    • How your educational and professional background has prepared you for graduate study
    • Why this particular program would be a good fit for you
    • If you are applying to the same institution where you did your undergraduate, why you think that institution (and that program) is still the best program for your graduate study
  • Be prepared to ask questions about: 
    • Typical funding and how it compares to living expenses in the area
    • The program’s teaching or research requirements 
    • The departmental culture (e.g., are diversity and inclusion priorities for the department and for the university? Do students from different walks of life feel like they belong?) 
    • Resources for professional development and student wellbeing
    • The environment of support for graduate students, both in the department and in the university at large
    • The point of contact for questions