Part 3: The Elements of a Grad School Application

So by now you know how much work goes into submitting even one application for graduate school. Most people I know submit somewhere between 5 to 17 graduate school applications. That might seem excessive but I think it’s still fairly reasonable depending on your circumstances. It’s important to remember that graduate school applications are typically not free; when I was submitting for programs I paid anywhere between $35 and $105 to submit my application. This adds up fast! Plus it also is expensive to send your official GRE scores to all of your schools. Luckily, some schools accept unofficial GRE scores and you only have to send official scores if you’re accepted. It’s also important to keep in mind the cost of visiting if you have the chance to interview. I actually thought about that as a litmus test; if I couldn’t imagine wanting to visit in person for interviews, I didn’t apply to the program.For example, I had Purdue on my list but after looking at the weather and thinking about the location I never even applied. Now I will walk through every component of the application so you get an idea of what you’ll have to pull together for each school.

GRE: The GRE is the worst. My best advice is to take it, get “good enough” scores, and be done with it. Good enough scores will look different for different programs, but from my knowledge of admissions it’s generally more aboutreaching a certain threshold so the program knows that you can handle the work. A professor once told me that they don’t care about your scores unless you’re so far below average that they worry you could keep up with the coursework. Honestly, I was worried about my math scores. I was in the 60th percentile after studying and doing my best and I couldn’t see that score getting too much higher. Luckily, I really don’t think it mattered. The GRE is expensive to take and I would not recommend taking it over and over and over again if you think it’s going to make or break your application–it won’t.

Screen Shot 2020-07-26 at 4.12.17 PM

Recommendation Letters: Well I hate to say anything is the most important component of an application, but you could make a good case that recommendation letters are a key element of an application second only to your personal statement. This could also be the hardest thing for some people. If you didn’t have good mentors or establish good relationships with professors in college, it can really be tough to find the people who know you well enough to write a good recommendation letter. Personally, I don’t think that’s always fair–with research showing that first generation students struggle to reach out and build relationships with professors, it’s easy to see how this can perpetuate privilege into the graduate school application process.  Nonetheless, here live in a time where recommendation letters matter. I definitely recommend reaching out to faculty, mentors, and supervisors well ahead of time (at minimum a month early). Ideally, you might have had some idea that you would apply to graduate school in the future, so hopefully it’s not a complete surprise when you ask (I know some of my recommenders actually already had letters already pre-drafted for me). It’s nice to have a list of recommenders and make sure they are clear on your motivations, goals, and, most importantly, deadlines. I reached out to all of these people ahead of time and understood what they could commit to and when they expected to have a draft of my personal statements. It’s really important that your recommenders have a draft of your personal statements they can write the best letter for you and for the program that you’re applying to. I suggest you keep a spreadsheet of all of your recommenders and schools and when you reach out to make sure you don’t get your wires crossed. Also, make it as easy as possible for your recommenders! Please do not forget to keep these people updated with your progress and don’t forget to write them all thank you notes.

Thank You note

Transcript: I think it depends on your program, but grades do matter to a degree. About half of the programs I applied to wanted a official transcript and the other half only wanted an unofficial transcript. I’m sure your transcript is looked at in the context of your University and the classes you took, but I don’t know too much about this. If you have any grades that you’re not too proud of, it would be helpful to have a clear narrative to explain why you received those grades.

Essays: This is the really hard stuff. I was lucky and had an essay prepared while I was an undergraduate for a number of different fellowships I applied to (none of which I was awarded–a good reminder to keep failing forward!). I was so bummed after pouring hours into a personal statement that would never be used, but then I realized it would be the perfect skeleton for my grad school applications. So I was lucky that I had a good jumping off place. If you don’t have that, don’t worry! I would recommend starting early on writing a draft of an statement that outlines your broad goals and interests. I could do a whole post on writing a personal statement, but I truly don’t feel qualified to do that. I can tell you that it requires lots of time and revisions; reach out to people you trust and ask for feedback and recommendations to improve your personal statement. Get real with yourself around what your goals are while keeping in mind what programs are looking for. So once you have a solid draft you can mix-and-match different components to fit the different programs. You need to talk about the faculty members you’re interested in working with, why you want to work with them, why you want to attend that specific program, what you’ll bring to the program and why what you will bring matters. It’s important to show that you’ve done your research! Writing this out is also helpful practice; if you can’t make a case as to why you would be a good fit, maybe you aren’t a good fit! Some schools have additional essays, such as diversity statements or essays around your theoretical orientation so try and review what you need for each school early.


Out of the ten schools I applied for I got interviews at six. I don’t know what is normative, but I was happy with the number of interviews I did receive. I don’t say this to show how well (or poorly) I performed, but instead as a way to give you an idea of what your experience could look like. I didn’t get interviews at some of the schools where I submitted what I thought were my strongest applications. It is an unpredictable and, at times, impersonal process. Hang in there!

Screen Shot 2020-07-26 at 4.04.43 PM

One thought on “Part 3: The Elements of a Grad School Application

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *