Congratulations! If you are reading this page, it means you have decided what to study and where to apply for graduate school. Maybe you based this decision on research you gathered at this resource center, in attending an Idealist.org Graduate Degree Fair for the Public Good talking with admissions staff, asking people in your network, or through other methods.
However, if you have jumped ahead and want to apply for schools without having researched your options, then it's a good idea to take a step back and at least read this overview of all the things you should do to research your options and prepare for school. Have you considered all your options? Or have you overlooked options like studying part-time, joining joint-degree options, discovering a school you haven't heard of, or entering a degree program that—on the surface—doesn't look like an obvious choice? Whatever the case, you owe it to yourself to understand all the opportunities open to you before making such a giant commitment of time and money.
For those who are ready, on to the business of applying!
The admission and application process involves more than taking tests, writing an essay or two, and completing the application and hitting "submit." Yes, admissions offices do have a checklist of materials they require of applicants, and there's advice below about how to ace the steps of the application, but your admission and application process involves so much more. Applying to grad school should also involve interacting with the admissions office, understanding the priorities of the admissions committee, finishing up prerequisite courses, making up for weaknesses in your application, and finally, gathering and submitting the requested materials.
To begin with, recognize that gatekeepers to your graduate education are there to help. Utilize them! Try to avoid being a "stealth applicant"—those who first make contact with the university with their application—because you miss a prime opportunity to ask questions and/or put your name in front of the people on the admissions committee who will make a decision about your future. Program websites can provide a lot of helpful information and this is definitely a place to start, but the professionals who work directly with prospective students can offer insight. Ask questions about a program's enrollment statistics or concerns you have about perceived weaknesses in your application. And if you want, ask admissions personnel to send you email updates that are relevant to your interests.
Kathryn Meyer, Director of Recruitment at The Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University, says that the increase of stealth applications—a trend on the rise across the nation—means that admissions staff miss opportunities to advise would-be applicants. "Many times prospects miss the chance to gather information that could help them in the selection or application process. Recruiters and admissions directors know the inside workings of their own application system and programs and they work with applicants year in and year out. So who better to answer individual concerns, put them in touch with current students, or offer links to find specific information? We want to help each person put forth the best application possible for the benefit of both parties." In other words, admissions staff can and want to provide a valuable service to those who call or email in the research phase.
Furthermore, make sure to always be professional and courteous in your interactions with the admissions office. Be conscientious of the time you are taking, and offer a thank you. Even quick phone calls and emails may be considered part of your application, so think about your words and reread your correspondence before pressing "send." You might be surprised how hasty comments and reactions may lend a negative impression to your evaluation.
The admissions committee is usually comprised of staff and faculty who will review your application and determine whether you are a good fit for the school or program. From the committee's point of view, your value to the school naturally includes your ability both to succeed in the degree, as well as later in your career.
But that's not all. The admissions committee wants more from you. They want you to contribute to the education and career of your classmates as well. The admissions committee wants you to share your unique perspective in class discussions, to use your life and past professional experience to guide group projects, and to connect classmates with your professional network. It's not all about your individual aptitude to pass your courses; your contribution to the school is also a major consideration in your admission.
They also want you to succeed in any internships, externships, or other experiences you participate in while you are a grad student, and by doing so, represent the school well to community partners, host agencies, and others you come into contact with during grad school. A school is only as strong as its current student body.
Finally, the admissions committee wants you to be dedicated to your field, capable of doing graduate level work, and for you and the school to be a good fit for each other.
Grad schools expect a certain level of academic and professional achievement from applicants. Only your target school can tell you what courses, skills, and experience you should have accomplished prior to enrollment. For example, a policy school might expect incoming students to have a solid foundation in economics and statistics. An international studies program may require students to pass a foreign language exam with a certain score in order to be admitted.
Depending on the school, lacking a specific course on your transcript is not going to prevent your admission. More likely the school will admit you, but they'll do so conditionally, making it clear that you either take a summer course before fall enrollment or take the course during your first term on campus. Be aware that course deficiencies you make up for during your first term will probably not count towards your graduate degree, may cost you extra, and definitely will compete for your time with the graduate level classes you are taking. Try to address these deficiencies early in your research phase.
You may be faced with a blemish on your application that is less easily overcome. For example, you may have had a semester or two as an undergraduate with low grades that really drove down your overall Grade Point Average (GPA). Or perhaps you graduated from college so long ago that your undergraduate professors won't remember you, making it difficult to ask them for academic references from them. Maybe you started another masters degree elsewhere and failed to complete it. The best way to proceed is to investigate remedies by asking the admissions staff you meet and other people you respect.