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Overview of the Graduate School Application Process

Previously: Overview of the Tips for Applying to Graduate School Resource

By Dr. Sheila Thomas, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Dean for Academic Programs and Diversity Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

This article provides a broad overview of the graduate school application process. Applying to graduate school takes planning and effort. Please refer to this article for guidance on how and when to approach different parts of the application process.

There are four big phases of the graduate school application process:

  1. Evaluating your options and planning your applications
  2. Assembling your application materials
  3. Submitting your applications
  4. Interviewing, conducting site visits, and choosing programs

You should start the first phase a year or more before applications are due, which is in the late fall and early winter for most graduate programs. During this phase, you will want to take stock of your graduate school options to determine if graduate school is right for you and, if so, whether to pursue a PhD or another degree.

You will also want to decide whether to enroll in graduate school directly after your undergraduate studies or take a gap year to pursue a post-baccalaureate course of study, volunteer, travel or gain additional research experience.

Once you decide on a degree program, you will want to gather information on potential schools and departments and make an application list, plan, and budget. As you add schools on to your application list, seek out fee waivers to ease the cost of applications.

In the spring and summer before you submit your applications, you should plan to assemble the main components of your application: entrance exam scores, statement of purpose, resume or biosketch, and letters of recommendation. Plan on spending late summer and early fall filling out and submitting your applications. This process can be quite time intensive. It is best to start early.

As you assemble your materials for your application to PhD programs, you may be thinking, “I successfully applied to college, how is this any different?” On the surface, it doesn’t seem very different. You will be gathering information about potential schools, taking a standardized test and submitting scores to schools, writing some essays, putting together a CV, and asking individuals that know you well to write letters of recommendation. It all sounds very familiar and to some degree it is—but there are some key differences that are important to keep in mind so that you can apply to the institutions that are right for you and put together a strong application.

You are no longer applying to be a student, you are applying to be a junior colleague. Unlike college admissions, the individuals reading your application, and making the decision of who to interview and/or admit, are faculty. Therefore, as you put together these different pieces, particularly as you select your letter writers, work on your Statement of Purpose, and for those in the humanities and social sciences, work on a writing sample, remember that your audience is essentially those professors that are lecturing you and/or that have mentored you through your research. Consider what these faculty would want or need to know to determine if you should be their junior colleague.

2) As a PhD student and junior colleague, you will no longer be just a consumer of knowledge, you will also be a producer. Taking classes will be a small fraction of your PhD The PhD is about developing new ideas and making discoveries. Consider what you need to tell the committee in your statement and who can speak to your potential to contribute to the knowledge of your field. Also consider whether the institutions you are thinking about applying to will provide you with the resources you need to be successful; and whether the faculty in the departments or program you are considering support your scholarly interests. Remember, although you are applying to become their future colleague, they will also be yours.

Once your applications are submitted and under consideration by admissions committees, you will have to wait to hear about interviews and acceptances. Be prepared for interviews and the post-interview process if you are in a field that typically requires them. If all goes well, you will have multiple competing offers and will need to decide between them. If you do not happen to get accepted, do not be discouraged. Trying again the next year usually results in application success.

Action Items:

  1. Evaluate your options carefully and from a variety of angles.
  2. Assemble your materials well in advance of the deadline, especially your statements and letters.
  3. Submit your applications early to allow for unexpected snags.

Up next: What do you get from a PhD in the Humanities and Social Sciences? or What do you get from a PhD in STEM?