Gathering Knowledge: What to Know When Applying to a Graduate Program

Application Strategy

Gathering Knowledge: What to Know When Applying to a Graduate Program

The application process to various grad schools is fully underway right now. This is the most important part of the career of every individual, because the school you choose will have a high impact on future salary considerations, opportunities and available, and more. In fact, the job openings after Masters or PhD is highly positively correlated with the ranking of the school you get your PhD/Masters from. So, applying to multiple schools/programs of various ranks is strongly prescribed to maximize the chances of getting admission in the best possible university. Here are some things to consider:

I. Add 'Flexibility' to Your Choices

However, your search for programs in graduate school must be well focused to a few areas that attract you. You don't want to work/study the best 2-5 years of your life on something boring. To maximize the chances of selection, these programs must also be a match with your long-term goals, given your interests, background, past experiences, and the length of time you are willing to commit to graduate education. In making your decisions, remember that what you think you may want to specialize in could change over time, so make sure all your decisions give you the flexibility you may need later on.

II. Your Department is Important

But beyond flexibility and coursework, what else should you take into consideration? Well, choosing a specific department is another tricky area, particularly for students applying to a Masters program with coursework requirements. Job prospects vary considerably from department to department, and it is generally advised to switch departments only if the work opportunities will be better after the Masters. 

For PhD students, there is more flexibility in the choice of department, until the research is in alignment with your career goals. Although, PhD aspirants do have other areas to consider, like worrying about the departmental requirements for completing a PhD. Certain departments may ask students to leave with a Masters if they do not meet these prerequisites within a stipulated period of time. You should try to figure out if the department just uses course grades and class ranks in making these decisions, or if there are there prelims or qualifying exams and what are the guidelines for them. PhD students should also try to contact professors directly and must inquire into the profile of other students who completed PhD under the professor. 

III. Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions

Both Masters and PhD should feel comfortable asking about passing and failing rates for a program, department, or research group. Knowing your requirements for graduation is important at any level of your education. For Master's programs, figure out if you have a thesis or second year paper to write (and whether that fits within your career goals and expectations, like entering the workforce post-graduation or pursuing a PhD). 

(Similarly, always ask to reach out to students in departments and programs. You'd want to hear from them about other useful information on the department, particularly department politics. No amount of research online can replace personal experience.) 

IV. Think About Your Future Before You Invest

Actually, while applying for a Masters, you must decide if you want to do a PhD next. If you do, you should apply to programs and department that feed directly into Ph.D. programs or those where there is a choice of making this shift. However, if you just want a Master's degree for now, you should do an entirely different type of search: you need to find a great school with a solid terminal Masters program. Why? Because, believe it or not, you will likely get better financial aid package (for shorter master programs), since you wouldn't be competing with students looking to pursue a Masters-PhD degree. Also, if you are applying to an average-ranked masters school, it is better to complete your masters and apply for PhD to a better school.

V. Application Details

After searching for the correct program, the application process can itself be tedious. You have to write personal statements/research statements/letter of intents and have to arrange for letters of recommendation. Talk to your faculty members and/or internship supervisors who can write strong letters of recommendation for you. A strong recommendation letter tremendously affects the fate of your application, so, you must choose the referees wisely and must be someone who can cite incidents and narrate about your strong points. You must have done well in the courses/projects you took with your referee so that he has sufficient matter to write the letter on. Your personal statement is another defining aspect of your application. Personal statements are the mirror in which the selection committee examines a candidate. Your personal statements must not only show your strong academic/research background and future interests, but must also demonstrate how you would be a good fit for the department's profile. Getting help from neutral experts is always a good idea.


With the right choice and correct approach, grabbing a good offer from the best grad school is not very difficult (though it can still require plenty of effort). Apart from the steps mentioned above, it is very important to do well on the GRE and other required admissions examinations (prep for them if you can). And, of course, investigate graduate level syllabi and past prelim questions of schools of interest, if available. After all, you're going for an academic experience. One which can be very expensive, so don't forget to be on the look up for financial assistance, from your home country or from the country of the grad school. I wish you luck in the selection process!