1. Know why you’re applying to grad school
This may seem obvious, but before starting your grad school application, it’s worth spending some time thinking about exactly why you’re applying. This may include your passion for the subject and desire for academic challenge, as well as how you hope to benefit from the degree in the longer term.
This point is emphasized by Kristin Williams, associate provost for graduate enrolment management at George Washington University, US. “The first set of questions prospective Masters students need to ask are internal, and addressed to themselves: What are my professional and personal goals? What are my academic and professional strengths and weaknesses? What are the characteristics of the universities and cities in which I would like to study?”
Having a thorough understanding of your reasons for applying to grad school will not only help you to select the most relevant courses to apply to; it will also help you to convince admissions officers that you’re a perfect match for their graduate program.
2. Start your grad school application as early as possible
Again, meeting submission deadlines may seem obvious – but remember that completing all the requirements for a grad school application can take a considerable amount of time. You may need to submit results from grad school exams such as the GRE, write a personal statement or application essay, and provide official transcripts and references.
If you’re applying to grad school abroad, there may be some additional requirements, such as the results of an English proficiency test like the TOEFL.
Don’t assume that every grad school application is the same – double check each one carefully, and make sure you include all the specified information, but nothing additional. If in doubt, just ask. Universities have dedicated admissions departments ready to help.
“Begin your grad school application as soon as possible to avoid any potential last-minute problems,” advises Kerri Huffman, associate director for student services at the University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies. “Applicants who wait until the last minute and run into technical errors or have questions may not receive the assistance they need immediately to complete the application on time.”
3. Check deadlines for scholarship/funding applications
Huffman also points out that scholarship application deadlines often come before the overall application deadline. So if you’re looking for funding, you should (as ever) do your research well in advance.
The starting point here is usually with the university itself, says George Washington University’s Kristin Williams. “Most universities and programs provide online information about institutional financial support, and many provide suggestions about outside funders.” She adds, “Students should also research funding options that might be available through government or non-profit organizations within their country, or through current or future employers.”
Jo Kite, head of communications at the UK’s University of Birmingham, recommends asking about part-time work in and around campus, and also opportunities to apply for funding within the department. “Ask prospective supervisors if they have funding allocated for the projects they supervise and email departments and ask what support might be available – there may be funding opportunities that aren’t advertised on websites and if you don’t ask, you’ll never know.”
4. Get grad school advice first hand
Once you've done some research, it can be useful to get some first-hand grad school advice - from other students, grad school alumni, admissions staff and advisors.
You may be able to achieve this by attending open days and events hosted by grad schools themselves. In addition, it's possible to meet a whole range of grad schools from around the world by attending events such as the QS World Grad School Tour.
The World Grad School Tour is a chance to meet representatives of grad schools from around the world all in one day, in a city near you. There are also alumni panels, workshops and opportunities to get answers to all your questions about applications, funding and studying in different countries. It's free to attend, and everyone who joins the tour has the chance to apply for grad school scholarships worth a total of US$1.2 million.
5. Get your personal statement right
Most grad school applications will require you to submit a personal statement. This is your chance to really stand out from the crowd – so how can you capture admission officers’ attention?
The University of Toronto’s Kerri Huffman emphasizes the importance of showing you’ve spent time researching the department and the course you’re applying to. “Learn about the current research taking place. Read their mission statement if they have one, and find out where their former students have gone after they’ve graduated.”
Having learned these things, Huffman says, you can use your personal statement to show "how your own goals, abilities, and experience will benefit the program, and how well you'll fit and thrive within this particular learning environment."
It’s also important to choose referees who are able to support and endorse your personal statement, by reiterating the same claims you’ve made about yourself. “Choose referees who know you well and can speak to the fantastic qualities that make you unique and exceptional,” Huffman says.
“If you currently don’t have suitable or relevant references, then make use of your professor’s office hours to talk with them about the subject areas you’re interested in, or volunteer as a lab or research assistant, or with an organization in the field.”
6. Learn from any rejections
Finally, if your application is unsuccessful, take the opportunity to learn from this – especially if you intend to re-apply. Huffman suggests waiting a few weeks and then contacting the relevant department to request feedback. “They may tell you things specific to your own application or they may tell you the things that made other applicants successful over you.”
George Washington University’s Kristin Williams adds that rejections may also be an indication that you’ve chosen the wrong grad schools to apply to – or at least that you need to cast your net a little wider. “In many cases, students need to be more realistic about the strength of their academic background, skills and overall preparation for graduate study and re-think whether they have been applying to the fields of study or schools for which they are qualified.”