Students who plan on applying to graduate school should begin thinking about and preparing for the application process as soon as possible. While the undergraduate degree and graduate school often share some commonalities, graduate programs are more likely to require the applicant to demonstrate a level of professional experience.
Grad schools also generally have a far lower total enrollment, which means that each applicant undergoes intense scrutiny. In some cases, finalist applications may be considered by an admissions committee. This makes acceptance much more challenging.
So, you’ll need a plan.
You’ll need to gather all necessary documents, submit solid applications, and prepare for program interviews. This is why so many students hire a graduate school consultant to help with the grad school process.
Ready to make a move?
Here is a rundown of what applying to grad school can look like and how to best prepare for it. We’ll cover what you’ll need and how to get it, as well as some information about how some graduate programs differ from others.
Let’s cover the most important things to know.
The Ideal Time For Applying To Graduate School
The actual application and consideration process for many graduate schools can take a year or more. For those considering applying to grad school for a fall 2025 enrollment; the application process should be started no later than about May of 2024.
If standardized test scores are required for the specific graduate program, begin taking practice versions at least 90 days before the official test date. For example, many programs require you to take the graduate record exam (GRE) to be accepted.
A typical timeline looks something like this:
Standard Requirements For Grad School Applications
While the requirements for each graduate program will be unique to that particular school, there will be many common elements to graduate admissions.
Even with the move towards a more holistic evaluation and consideration of applicants to graduate school, GPA remains an incredibly influential factor in graduate admissions evaluations. The minimum GPA is generally 2.5 for most master’s degree programs.
Bachelor’s Degree and Transcripts
Any master’s programs, such as MBA programs, will require their applicants to be bachelor’s degree holders. Additionally, many programs require that the applicant hole not only a bachelor’s degree but one that has accreditation from a particular organization.
Prospective graduate students will need to submit official transcripts for all postsecondary education. While undergraduate degree programs will generally contact schools for transcripts, graduate students will need to have copies of their transcripts on hand.
Many graduate schools focus on building upon an existing knowledge base, which means having relevant professional experience and enough of it. Depending on the school, the average graduate degree program will require at least 1-2 years of work in the field of study. Research experience can sometimes substitute for professional experience.
Grad School Application
Part of the grad school application will be a traditional application form. While a common element for nearly all graduate schools, there is also no standard application, and each particular school creates its ideal application.
Common elements of the application will be residency proof, information about academic history & transcripts, and generally, the names and contact information for some personal references.
Financial Aid Application
You’ll want to apply for financial aid during your grad school process. This usually starts with filling out the FAFSA. Even if you think you won’t receive need-based aid, applying anyway is a good idea. The FAFSA process can help you qualify for special loans with low-interest rates. These aren’t always based on financial need.
Standardized Test Scores
Many graduate degree programs will require applicants to have standardized test scores on file. These can be MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, or even GRE scores. Additionally, non-native English speakers will need additional proficiency demonstrations before gaining acceptance.
Not sure which graduate school exam you need to take? Look to your top schools of choice for their requirements.
Once you’ve narrowed down your list of entrance exams, you might consider enrolling in a GRE test prep program.
Preparing For Grad School: Other Things to Consider
Before you start applying to grad schools, you will need considerable preparation. Here are some tips on getting crucial elements together for your grad school application.
Letters Of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation can help set you apart in the grad school admission process. These letters should be written by someone who knows the applicant well academically.
For this reason, former or current professors are good choices. Managers at work and volunteer supervisors are also good choices.
Most grad schools will require 2-3 letters of recommendation from potential students. Make sure you give your sources plenty of time to write the letters, at least a few weeks. You don’t want to rush them, so make sure you plan ahead.
Personal statements are often one of the things that causes the most anxiety for students. The personal statement is a short essay, typically 500-700 words, and is a chance for the admissions committee to learn more about the applicant as a person.
Here are some common personal statement writing prompts that universities use:
- Introduce yourself to the committee. Share details such as what made you, who you are, and what sets you apart.
- What challenge have you faced, and how have you grown from it?
- Please share how you’ll become involved at the university and how your background, interests, and special talents will add to our community.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event that led to personal growth.
Additionally, there may be different admissions requirements for different grad schools.
For example, many grad schools require prerequisite testing for specific programs, such as the medical college admission test, the law school admission test, or the graduate management admission test.
Graduate Degree Interviews
Even though it may not be a requirement of the grad school, making a campus visit can help make a better impression on the admissions staff. That said, many grad school programs will allow interviews via common videoconferencing platforms.
There are definitely dos and don’ts to interviewing, so make sure that you brush up on these. You might even consider a mock interview!
A Note About Advanced Degrees
Grad students who have career goals that include the pursuit of an advanced degree, such as doctoral programs or Ph.D. programs, must also prepare for more rigorous applications.
Most students will need to meet basic GPA requirements as part of the application to an advanced degree graduate program. These are commonly 2.5 for master’s degree programs and 3,0+ for Ph.D. and similar doctoral programs.
Sufficient Preparation Can Make Grad School Application Simpler
Grad students are recipients of intensive investment of time and resources by those running the grad programs, and as such, they should be able to demonstrate themselves worthy.
By taking the time to fully understand the graduate school application process, preparing effective application materials, and submitting them well ahead of the deadline, prospective students have far better chances of being counted amongst grad school’s current students.
Depending on what you have and what you need, the time it can take to prepare can vary significantly. In general, applicants should begin their preparations at least a full year before the expected application window. This is enough time to get letters, transcripts, and anything else that may be needed, like registering for tests.
The most influential factor in answering this is going to be what grad schools are being applied to and what the acceptance rate is for each one. Some programs are far more exclusive and competitive than others and are much harder to get into without incredibly impressive applications.
We’ve discussed the minimum GPA needed, but what is an ideal GPA for applying to grad school? Of course, higher is better, but the answer will depend heavily on how competitive or exclusive the graduate study program is.
Having a GPA that is greater than 3.0 is a start. However, more competitive environments, like medical schools, business schools, and similar graduate studies, will need GPAs of 3.5-4.0.
Bryce Welker is an active speaker, blogger, and regular contributor to Forbes, Inc.com, and Business.com where he shares his knowledge to help others boost their careers. Bryce is the founder of more than 20 test prep websites that help students and professionals pass their certification exams.