Preparing Your Application for Graduate School

two students pose together at a receiption

How to Prepare to Apply to Grad School

We’ve curated some information to help you think through whether graduate school is right for you, and if so, how to prepare your application to put your best foot forward.

This information is adapted from materials available at the UC Berkeley Career Center. The Career Center’s Graduate School pagealso contains additional information on admissions tests, the statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation.

What is Graduate School?

Graduate school constitutes an advanced program of study focused on a particular academic discipline or a specific profession. Traditionally, graduate school has been “academic” (centered on generating original research in a particular discipline), but it may be “professional” (centered on imparting skills and knowledge to future professionals), or a combination of both traditions.

Do you really want to be a graduate student?

  • Are you willing to invest the time, energy, and money associated with going to graduate school? Have you thoroughly investigated these costs?
  • Are you prepared to spend the majority of the next 2-7 years studying while living with a reduced income?
  • Can a single topic or narrow range of topics sustain your interest for the next 2-7 years?
  • Do you need a break from school?
  • Will career-related work experience help you get into graduate school?
  • Are you comfortable initiating and carrying out independent research?

Why do you want to go to graduate school?

  • Do you want to enter a profession that requires an advanced degree?
  • Do you want a higher salary? (Will a graduate degree really affect your salary?)
  • Are you uncertain about making a career decision? (Have you talked to a career counselor?)
  • Are you applying to graduate school because “everyone else is doing it?” (The decision to attend graduate school is ideally based on your own criteria, including how graduate education will fit in with your goals).
  • Are you applying to graduate school because you feel like you have no career options? (Have you used all job search methods? Have you talked to a career counselor?)
  • Do you know what your short and long term goals are and how a graduate degree can help you achieve them?

Gathering Information

  • Talk to faculty on campus and at other institutions that teach in the field you plan to pursue; they often can provide you with the best information that will help steer you in the direction of good programs.
  • Since most universities have websites, the Internet is a great resource to find information quickly and easily. Some sites will provide complete information, while others may tell you where to write to get additional information.
  • Contact programs directly to get more detailed program information such as courses, professors, costs, financial aid and application forms.
  • At the Career Center Info lab, or local library, you will find books, brochures, catalogues, directories and guides that list information on universities that grant graduate or professional degrees. One such guide is the Peterson’s Guide to Graduate and Professional Programs, which contains both short and long descriptions of virtually all accredited graduate programs.
  • Conduct informational interviews with current graduate students, professionals, and faculty in the graduate programs you are considering to gain insider information about programs.
  • Read professional and academic journals related to your area of interest.

Deciding Where to Apply: Factors to Consider

After researching your options, the next step is to decide where to apply. Here are some factors to consider when evaluating programs:

  • The Reputation of the Faculty: What are their academic degrees/credentials and research specialties? What is the student/faculty ratio? Some faculty may have homepages that include some of the above information.
  • The Quality of the Program: This is measured by many different factors, many of which are mentioned below. Talk to several faculty members and graduate students in the field you are pursuing to get an informed view on the variety of graduate programs available. You may choose to look at graduate school rankings to help you assess a program’s quality; however, you need to realize that the rankings may be based on criteria that are different from your own, and that many scholars, deans, and advisors question the validity of such rankings.
  • Financial Cost of the Program: What are the opportunities for fellowships, assistantships, or scholarships? What other sources of financial aid are available?
  • The Program Requirements: Inform yourself of specific requirements to gain admittance into your programs of choice in terms of GPA, test scores, undergraduate coursework, and specific entrance examinations.
  • Available Course Offerings: Are courses you need to fulfill degree requirements frequently offered? Will the course offerings help you meet your professional or educational goals?
  • Facilities: Consider the quality of on-site facilities such as libraries, computer labs, and research facilities.
  • Employment: Where are graduates of the program working, and how much are they earning?
  • Geographic Location: Will studying in a particular location help you meet personal or professional goals?
  • Student Life: Consider the diversity of students, student organizations, housing, and campus support services.

What kinds of admissions tests are there?

Most graduate and professional schools require that you take a standardized admissions test. The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) General and Subject tests are required by many academic programs (Masters and Doctoral degrees). MBA programs usually require the GMAT. Other tests are required in other fields, such as the LSAT for law school, the MCAT for medical school, the DAT for dentistry school, the OAT for optometry school, and the TEOFL English proficiency test for international students.

Getting Started

One of the initial steps in applying to a graduate or professional school is to research application deadlines so that you can develop a timeline of when to submit test scores, letters of recommendation, personal essays, etc. Below is a timeline to help you in planning your application process:

Junior Year

  • Begin researching available programs by talking to faculty/alumni/current students in the program, reviewing grad school guides/directories, requesting promotional materials and visiting schools’ websites
  • Start exploring financial aid resources
  • Study, then take practice tests for standardized exams
  • Sign up for required standardized test
  • Attend Career Center Graduate/Professional School Workshops
  • Identify potential letter writers
  • Order an unofficial transcript and check for and correct any discrepancies
  • Take the required standardized test

Senior Year – Fall Semester

  • Write the first draft of your statement of purpose
  • Request your letters of recommendation from faculty
  • Order official transcripts
  • Write final draft of statement of purpose
  • Complete and mail your applications
  • Apply for aid available through departmental programs; assistantships, fellowships, scholarships, etc.
  • Complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Senior Year – Spring Semester

  • Visit prospective campuses if possible, and talk to faculty/students to help you make your final decision
  • Follow-up with schools to make sure your file is complete
  • After receiving acceptance from the school of your choice, send in the required deposit, and contact other schools and decline acceptances
  • Write thank you notes to people who helped you

The University of California at Berkeley is committed to excellence and equity in every facet of its mission. Teaching, research, professional and public service contributions that promote diversity and equal opportunity are encouraged and given recognition in graduate admissions and fellowships. Guidelines, such as those below, may be considered when composing the personal statement for the UC Berkeley graduate application.

  • Potential to bring to one’s academic career the critical perspective that comes from a non-traditional educational background or one’s understanding of the experiences of groups historically under-represented in higher education;
  • Communication skills and cross-cultural abilities to maximize effective collaboration with a diverse cross-section of the academic community; Demonstrated significant academic achievement by overcoming barriers such as economic, social, or educational disadvantage;
  • Potential to contribute to higher education through understanding the barriers facing women, domestic minorities, students with disabilities, and other members of groups underrepresented in higher education careers, as evidenced by life experiences and educational background. For example,
    • attendance at a minority serving institution;
    • ability to articulate the barriers facing women and minorities in science and engineering fields;
    • participation in higher education pipeline programs such as, UC Leads, Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP), or McNair Scholars;
  • Academic service advancing equitable access to higher education for women and racial minorities in fields where they are underrepresented;
  • Leadership experience among students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education;
  • Research interests focusing on underserved populations and understanding issues of racial or gender inequalities. For example,
    • research that addresses issues such as race, gender, diversity, and inclusion;
    • research that addresses health disparities, educational access and achievement, political engagement, economic justice, social mobility, civil and human rights, and other questions of interest to historically underrepresented groups;
    • artistic expression and cultural production that reflects culturally diverse communities or voices not well represented in the arts and humanities.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • What the admissions committee will read between the lines: motivation, competence, potential as a graduate student.
  • Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active voice, not a passive voice.
  • Demonstrate everything by example; don’t say directly that you’re a persistent person, show it.
  • If something significant occurred that affected your grades, such as poverty, illness, or excessive work, state it. Write it affirmatively, however, showing your perseverance.
  • Make sure everything is linked with continuity and focus.
  • The essay should be approximately (1.5 – 2 pages) single-space, 12pt. Font.

Writing the Statement of Purpose

  1. IntroductionTell them what you’re interested in, and perhaps, what sparked your desire for graduate study.
  2. Summarize what you did as an undergraduate
    • Research you conducted. Indicate with whom, the title of the project, your responsibilities and the outcome. Write technically, or in the style of your discipline. Professors are the people who read these statements.
    • Important paper or thesis project you completed, as well as anything scholarly beyond your curricular requirements.
    • Work experience, especially if you had any kind of responsibility for testing, designing, or researching or interning in an area similar to what you wish to study in graduate school.
  3. Indicate your current activitiesIf you graduated and worked prior to returning to grad school, indicate what you’ve been doing: company or non-profit, your work/design team, responsibilities, what you learned. You can also indicate here how this helped you focus your graduate studies.
  4. Elaborate on the topic you wish to pursue for graduate schoolHere you indicate what you would like to study in graduate school in further detail.
    • Indicate your area of interest, then state questions, concerns, and thoughts associated with the topic. This should be an ample paragraph!
    • Look on the web for information about departments you’re interested in, as well as the professors and their research.  Are there professors whose research interests parallel yours? If so, indicate this. If you can infer that you’ve read their work, all the better.
    • End your statement in a positive manner, indicating a readiness for the challenges ahead of you.

The following is a list of suggestions that if followed closely, will strengthen your application in the competitive process of graduate admissions to UC Berkeley and other programs.

  1. Plan aheadResearch the colleges and universities where you would like to apply, focusing on the best programs that are the right match pertinent to your academic interests and personal needs. Find out if any of the faculty are doing research in an area that interests you. Go on-line or call the University for application and information materials. Double-check the deadlines (most programs will not accept late applications). Some schools have two deadlines: a fellowship deadline, which is earlier, and a later general application deadline. Make sure you apply before the first deadline if you wish to be considered for university fellowships. In general, you should consider applying to a minimum of five schools. Ideally, you want to obtain the right match of the university, and the faculty you wish to work with.
  2. Letter of RecommendationFor graduate study, letters of recommendation are extremely important. Admission committees usually prefer letters from faculty since they believe only faculty can truly ascertain your scholarly potential. You need three letters of recommendation. Try to get all three from faculty with whom you’ve had an upper-division class, or have done research with. Some graduate programs require related work/internship experience, and you may need one or two letters from these entities in addition to one or two from faculty.Professors will invariably state your class grade in the letter, so use caution when choosing your evaluators. Approach the faculty member and ask her/him if they are able to write a positive letter of recommendation for you. If they hesitate, or say they can only write a neutral letter, approach someone else.Provide the evaluators with additional material such as copies of your transcript, resume, your statement of purpose, and personal statement (which should provide information about any pertinent personal history). This can strengthen the letter they write for you. Make sure to give them all the proper forms and deadlines. Follow up with a note of thanks.
  3. GREThe most common test required for entrance into graduate school is the general aptitude (Quantitative, Analytical, and Verbal) component of the GRE. The general GRE exam is offered throughout the year online.
    • You can buy GRE study guides and exams at bookstores or online.
    • Your GRE score will improve if you take the practice examinations in a timed format mimicking real testing conditions.
    • Order the software/practice tests from ETS(link is external) to better prepare for the computer administered test.
    • Many students suggest taking the practice exam on the computer, as it improves preparation for the actual test.
    • Consider taking a test preparation class to help with test-taking strategies.
    • Don’t randomly guess answers. Make calculated guesses that will narrow your choices.

    The Analytical portion of the GRE is in essay format. You will be asked to write two essays on certain topics. Focus on an analytical response, backing up what you’re “arguing” with logic and analysis. The Quantitative section of the GRE is considered of greatest importance to admission committees in sciences and engineering. It is expected that scientists and engineers should do well on this section. There is no calculus on this test.

    The GRE subject test is not required for the majority of those applying to Berkeley, however some departments, such as Math, English, Biology and Physics. Make sure you check with the department you’re applying to as to whether it’s required. The subject test is paper based and only offered three times per year. Most graduate programs take the exam results very seriously. Those departments requiring subject tests will weigh them more heavily than the general exam. Don’t let the GRE intimidate you. Studying ahead of time will prepare you well and reduce anxiety.

  4. Your College GPAThe college GPA is a critical component of the admissions process. A satisfactory scholastic average, usually a minimum GPA of 3.0 is required by UC Berkeley for admission, though typically, the cut-off for most departments is higher. (Exceptions can possibly occur depending on circumstances.) Many admissions committees will consider upward trends in grades. However, the better your GPA, the better your chances of getting admitted. Careful attention should be paid to any courses taken at the undergraduate level that are pertinent to the area you are considering for graduate study. If you are admitted to a non-terminal Master’s program you may be able to continue toward the Ph.D. pending passage of the preliminary examination and have at least a 3.5 graduate GPA.
  5. Research/Work ExperienceDuring summer, or the academic year, try to gain research experience in an independent study with a professor or research program. This will give you an edge in the admission process, provide you with insight about your own future research interests, and augment your knowledge and skills. Professors in all disciplines often regard students as highly motivated when they partake in research as undergraduates.
  6. Statement of PurposeThe statement of purpose is one of the most important parts of the application process. It is from this essay that the admissions committee will discern the seriousness of your intentions, your experience, and your motivation for graduate school. Think of the statement of purpose as a composition with three different parts. The first part is a brief paragraph stating the program you want to study and your research focus. The second part should be a summary of your college experiences. Briefly describe what brought about your interest in graduate study. Describe any research experience, clarifying your responsibilities, experimental results, and if you presented the findings at a conference or published them in a journal. You may be as specific as possible, as professors in your discipline will read this statement. The third and most important part of the essay discuss why you want to go to graduate school, what you wish to study (research), and ideally, whom you would like to work with. Perhaps you wish to address an issue or topic that hasn’t been addressed before, or expand an undergraduate research project. Professors are looking for students with scholarly potential, intellectual passion, and serious intentions about graduate study.
  7. Personal StatementIndicate any challenges, hardships or obstacles you may have overcome. (We look at this as a sign of perseverance.) Let us know if you’ve supported yourself through school, if you’re a first generation college student, took on a leadership position, tutored or mentored underrepresented students, or took advantage of unique opportunities.
  8. Financial SupportMake sure you apply for graduate admission by the university’s fellowship deadline. This insures that you will be considered for various university fellowships. Apply for any other private, national, or corporate based fellowships. You should also fill out the FAFSA to receive consideration for loans and other aid. Visit the Graduate Division website for more information regarding other fellowships.(link is external)
  9. SuggestionsIf you need to submit a writing sample in your application, use a great paper you’ve written, checked for grammar and content.

Once you are admitted, visit the campus if possible, and speak to current graduate students. Ask them why they chose that particular university.

Be on time; be organized, prepared, and thorough. No application to any university will be processed unless all materials are in by the deadline. All application materials are usually available in September.

Following these guidelines will strengthen your application to Berkeley and any other graduate school you wish to attend.

Good Luck!

There are a variety of factors that interplay in the graduate admissions process(link is external). Top-ranked graduate programs typically prefer a GPA of 3.5 or better. Exceptions occur, but many students give up their quest to attend graduate school due to what they believe is a non-competitive GPA. While there are no guarantees, the following some of the suggestions below might improve your chances.

Before graduation

  1. Strive for ‘A” grades in your remaining classes, particularly those related to your intended area of study. Repeat classes where you obtained poor grades if possible. Graduate Admissions representatives will pay attention to a definitive turn-around, or an upswing in grades. Mention this in your statement of purpose, noting the higher GPA(s) achieved for each subsequent years/semesters. Inform your faculty recommenders about any positive changes.
  2. Undergraduate research can enhance admission to graduate school. Get involved in a formal research program (at your home or another institution), or through an independent study. Get to know the professor’s research interests before approaching them.
  3. Standardized Exams: If possible, take a test preparation course, as it will generally help you perform better. Make sure to study and take practice exams.
  4. Seek to improve your writing skills. Take an extra class if possible. Good writing skills will impress graduate admission reviewers and will enable you to boost the quality of your papers, theses, proposals, and dissertations.
  5. If you are a re-entry student, or had a break in your education, think about the skills you acquired while not in school. These skills may contribute to your knowledge base and attract the attention of admissions committees.

After graduation

  1. Those interested in obtaining a Ph.D. may need to complete a Master’s degree first.
    1. Seek admission to a Master’s program with a good reputation, preferably with a research/ thesis component. Aim for a 3.5 GPA or higher to get into high-ranking Ph.D. programs.
    2. Complete a thesis you’ll be proud to write about in your subsequent applications.
    3. Get to know your MA/MS professors. You will need letters of recommendation from them.
  2. You can also enroll in classes as a non-matriculating student at a university offering course credit.
  3. Ask the Graduate Admissions Chair at your intended graduate program(s) which upper division or graduate level classes might increase your potential for graduate admission. Focus on obtaining “A” grades. Inform the Admissions Chair of your progress.
    1. If you can’t get advice on specific classes, enroll in foundational/theoretical courses that will give you appropriate background/current knowledge.
    2. Get to know the professors from these classes, as they may be able to write strong letters of recommendation for you.
    3. Approach a professor about the possibility of conducting research. Acquiring research in this capacity is highly regarded as you will be learning new skills, obtaining advanced knowledge, and showing commitment to future study.

Round out your strategy by getting creative

  • Volunteer to conduct research with a faculty member from your alma mater.
  • Participate in an internship where you can work on an academically focused project.
  • Take classes to increase your skills in areas needing improvement.
  • Seek advice from current graduate students enrolled in your proposed area of study.
  • Find an academic mentor who might guide you through the application process.