What does a graduate school application involve, and how can you prepare in advance?
Each university, and often department, will have different application components and criteria. This page introduces the basics to help you get started; however, you should research the programs to which you plan to apply for their specific application instructions, requirements and emphasis of components.
Your application will generally consist of the following components:
- Academic Transcripts
- GRE Score
- Letters of Recommendation
- Statement of Purpose
- Writing Sample
- Curriculum Vitae (CV)
Graduate programs will review your undergraduate transcripts to evaluate your scholastic history as well as choice of coursework.
When considering your undergraduate grades, many programs will evaluate solely your upper-division GPA. You can calculate you upper-division GPA using the GPA Calculator.
Your choice of coursework will help demonstrate your intellectual interests as well as academic background. Programs may review your transcripts to see if you have chosen courses consistent with a plan for graduate studies, including research, writing and high-level content. Programs may also use your transcripts to evaluate coursework required by the program. For example, if you are applying to an economics Ph.D. program, they will look for additional math courses taken above the undergraduate degree requirement.
The GRE is a standardized test used by graduate school programs to measure your verbal, quantitative and analytical writing skills. Programs do not generally require one make or break GRE score, instead most consider your score as one component of your full application. However, when considering an average GRE score, a competitive program average may be in the mid 1200s. UT provides GRE prep courses, check out the Learning Center's Calendar for upcoming classes.
Some programs may also require Subject Tests to evaluate your knowledge of a specific area of study, such as literature and psychology. At UT, for example, the English Department requires the Literature in English Subject Test for the comparative literature doctorate program.
Letters of recommendation are an extremely important component of your application. Great emphasis is placed on your letters; selection committees will evaluate:
- Who has written your letters: is your writer well known in your specific are of graduate study?
- How well does s/he know you: can your writer write substantively about you, support your intellectual and research interests and has s/he worked directly with you in a relevant way?
At a large university such as UT, you may be wondering: how can I get to know faculty well enough to get a good, quality letter of recommendation? Read a top 10 list of how to impress faculty to create the contacts you need and consider the following options.
- Join a research project: find an interesting research project which will help you develop your interest and will allow you to work closely with a faculty member. Learn more about research projects on campus by exploring our Research Page.
- Take classes taught by tenured faculty: ask your academic advisor to help you select courses taught by faculty who are leaders in your area of interest. Once you are in the class, be sure to meet with the faculty members regularly and demonstrate your interest and abilities in class.
Asking a faculty member for a letter of recommendation may seem intimidating, but it shouldn't be. Use the following suggestions to help you connect with the faculty member in a way that makes this a smooth process for you and your professor.
- Before making the request, write your statement of purpose so that you have formalized a plan for graduate studies to share with your writer.
- Craft your CV.
- Make an appointment or visit the faculty member to officially ask for the letter of recommendation. This is a very important request, so be sure to give yourself time to speak with the professor and be prepared to answer any questions about your graduate school plans. Be able to explain why you have selected her/him to write your letter of recommendation.
- Be prepared to give the faculty member a copy of your statement of purpose, a copy of your CV and your choice of graduate programs' details. This will help the faculty member to evaluate your request and to write a targeted, effective letter of recommendation.
Request Form: Check out Dean Marc Musick's suggested letter of recommendation request form to help organize your information and ask for a letter.
The statement of purpose is the primary component in the application packet. The statement will be used by the selection committee to consider the following two key questions:
- Why are you interested in this area of study?
- Why have you selected this university, and more specifically, this program?
With this in mind, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to develop your graduate school goals, solidify your research objective and craft a well-written statement. Each program may have its own standards of length, but a general rule of thumb is 2-3 pages. Once you have written your statement and you have had editing assistance, you should next ask a professor to review it for content feedback.
Developing Your Goals
When developing your goals for attending graduate school, consider the following questions.
- Why have you decided to apply to graduate school?
- How did you come to your interest and how does your interest pull together intellectual pursuits, interests and values?
- How did you grow organically into this and how are you going to support continued learning?
Once you are confident in your responses to these questions, you will be able to answer the next question: what do you intend to research?
Solidify Your Research Objective
Your research objective should make up the bulk of your statement of purpose. This is the core of your application purpose: it answers why you want to go to graduate school, why you have selected the particular university and why you have selected the specific program. Your statement of purpose should demonstrate your intellectual curiosity, scholastic pursuits and comprehension in your area of study. Your research objective will not simply show your interest in an area of study (i.e., South Asian archaeology), instead it will outline what it is you plan to study and research during the graduate program (i.e., Buddhist reliquary mounds from Central India), why you want to study this and how you plan to complete your research.
Use this statement to demonstrate your command of language and powerful writing skills. As a graduate student you will spend much of your time writing and attempting to publish, so the quality of your writing will be strongly considered during the application process. Whether you're a great writer or not, you should always get help with grammar, structure, content and style. The Undergraduate Writing Center is a great resource to help with all your writing needs - visit with an advisor to organize your thoughts before drafting your statement and to strengthen your statement once you've completed your first draft. Once your first draft has been reviewed, ask the LACS graduate school advisor for a second review. And finally, ask for a final review from a faculty member who specializes in your intended area of study.
Your writing sample should be a well-constructed argument with good analysis, demonstrating your ability to manage a graduate level research paper. The sample should show your interest in a particular field and what's going on in that field. Some programs, such as English, may place the heaviest emphasis on your writing sample.
As with the statement of purpose, the length of the writing sample will vary by program. Some programs may not provide a general length requirement, whereas others, such as the UT English Department, may suggest up to 20 pages as an average length.
You may now be wondering: do I need to create a sample from scratch? If you do not have a writing sample which shows your research interest and analytical skills, such as a senior thesis or term paper, you may want to create a new writing sample. However, most applicants will use an existing paper or build from existing undergraduate work.
Graduate programs, as most academic teaching positions, require a curriculum vitae (CV) rather than a resume. The CV is similar to a resume in that it provides a summary of your academic and employment background. The CV differs from the resume in that it allows you to provide great detail about your academic and research experiences, extending to an average of 2-4 pages in length. The CV may include the following information:
- Academic credentials
- Scholarly presentations/Conference presentations
- Professional memberships
- International experience
- Computer skills
- Community Service
Learn how to create and maintain your CV.
Get a glimpse of a sample CV.
Are you curious about the differences between a resume and CV? Check out the Chronicle of Higher Education's story "The CV Doctor is Back" to explore these differences. This story contains links to CV and resume samples demonstrating the transition from one to the other.
You can also visit the Sanger Learning & Career Center for help creating a CV to best highlight your background and to demonstrate your intellectual interests.