Graduate/Professional School Application Process



Common Graduate Degrees

Graduate school provides for specialized study in an academic discipline. The two common degrees offered are the Masters of Arts/Masters of Science (MA/MS) and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). The MA/MS is normally a 2-3 year program, which includes coursework and either a comprehensive examination, thesis, or practical experience. The Ph.D. may take 4-10 years to complete (depending on the discipline) and the focus is on independent, original research. In addition to these academic graduate degrees, there are professional degrees such as the MBA, MD, and JD.

Components of the Application
Most graduate school applications require the following:
  • Application – online or hard copy
  • Personal statement (statement of purpose)
  • Letters of recommendation - normally three are required
  • Transcripts – required for all schools attended after high school
  • Test scores – GRE, LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, etc.
  • Resume or CV – for some programs
  • Portfolio – for art programs, journalism, film, etc.
  • Financial aid forms

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Time Table
Most application deadlines fall between December and February of the preceding year (professional programs such as medical and law school have earlier dates), however, leave plenty of time to research programs and gather application materials (16 months is recommended). The following is a guideline:
Spring: Assess whether graduate/professional school is right for you
Research programs by talking with faculty
Open a Graduate Reference Letter Service file (GRLS) if appropriate
Take a free practice GRE (sponsored by the Career Center-check web site for dates)
Summer: Continue to research programs; read research articles, narrow choices
Collect graduate admission materials from programs
Register for the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, etc.
Begin studying for the entrance exam (take a prep course if needed)
Take the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, etc.
Request letters of recommendation from faculty 
Apply to programs
Order transcripts
Draft personal statement (have faculty and career adviser review)
Apply for financial aid
Decisions made

You may wish to make a schedule similar to the one below to track your progress.

Decide on area of study by: ___________    Order transcripts by: ___________
Select programs by: ___________ Begin work on statement 
of purpose/essays by:
Request information from 
Programs by:
___________ Take drafts to faculty for 
review and critique by:
Take a practice test for 
GRE or equivalent on:
___________ Approach letter writers by:
*Deadline for letter writers
Take a prep course or study
___________ Open GRLS file (optional): ___________
Take GRE or equivalent on: ___________ Fill out and complete 
applications by:

*These deadlines should be well in advance of the actual application deadline so you have time to follow-up and make sure they've completed the letters.

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Introspective Research to Select A Clear Career Goal

Know your career objective. The reason for attending graduate and professional school is to prepare for a specific career. Clarity about this is essential for a strong application, including a strong statement of purpose! Knowing your own values, skills, interests and work characteristics is crucial to choosing which fields and programs to pursue. Without this self-awareness, it will be more difficult to make your decisions and complete a program once you're facing the demands of graduate study! If you need assistance, come in for drop-in advising. You can use the Career Center's Career Advice Network (CAN) to find UCSC alumni who work in the fields which interest you. The Career Center library is a good resource to help you clarify your career objective. 

Researching External Resources To Select A Degree and Programs

Resources for finding out about grad schools and grad school programs:
  1. Seek advice from UCSC professors in your field. They are often aware of the top schools in the field.
  2. Talk to faculty, currently enrolled students, and alumni of the graduate programs you are considering.
  3. Use The Peterson's Guide to Graduate and Professional Programs, a comprehensive guide to all such programs in the United States. The guide includes basic information about the university, the faculty in each program, and, most importantly, contact information. Peterson's can be found in the Career Center or McHenry libraries or on-line at: Another on-line resource:
  4. Specialty Guides: For example we have, "The Best Law Schools" in the Career Resource Library. 
  5. Academic journals: The faculty of the top programs are generating articles. Find out where the authors of articles in these journals teach.
  6. Practicing professionals: Where did alumni go to graduate school? How were their experiences? Use the Career Advice Network (CAN) to start making contacts in your field. Set up information interviews and ask these people questions which will assist you in making an informed decision.
  7. Professional associations. They frequently publish guides to graduate programs or have grad school information and guides on their web sites. One source:

Topics to research:
  • Ask people who are in your field of interest what kind of training they recommend you receive and which programs they recommend.
  • Find out about the culture/locale of the programs and schools you are considering. Will you be comfortable in that environment?
  • Know the certificates, licenses, and degrees available in your chosen field and understand the different career options associated with each.
  • Find out if the prestige of a graduate school or program is important in your field.
  • If possible, visit the campuses; visit with faculty who specialize in your area of interest, meet with admissions staff, and sit in on classes.
  • Try to meet your faculty advisor before you make a final decision on admission.
Questions to ask of faculty or students in the programs that interest you:
  • What do you teach here (or what is taught here)? Programs often look the same in catalogs but are often quite different.
  • How will I be matched with an advisor? Will I be working closely with her/him?
  • How well do faculty/ does the department support grad students in this program?
  • What percent of the students in the past five years have graduated from the program? If there is a high attrition rate, what are the reasons?
  • What was the average length of time to complete the degree? What is the mean time to complete class work, research, and dissertation?
  • What does the financial support for graduate students look like year to year? (Some programs front-end load to entice students, and then the financial support fizzles out)
  • What are the job placement rates of graduates from the program in the past several years? What types of positions have they been getting?
  • What is the criteria and process for choosing TAs and RAs?
  • Have any professors in this program won awards or grants lately?

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Clustering: Apply in clusters. Apply to programs where the average GRE score for the most recent entering class is lower than yours. Apply to programs where the average score is on par with yours. Apply to programs where the average score is above yours. Don't rule yourself out of a program you really want--you don't know how the admissions committee will weigh the different components of your application.
Statements of Purpose/Personal Statements
Most graduate/professional schools will have specific questions they wish you to address. Be sure to respond directly to those questions. Commonly asked questions include:
  • What are your immediate and long-term career goals?
  • How will graduate/professional school help you obtain these goals?
  • What experiences, research, demonstrated skills and accomplishments have made you decide on and prepare you for this program?
  • How will this specific program assist you in reaching your goals 
    (you may mention specific faculty, research, program emphases, courses, etc.)
  • Discuss your background only by directly tying it in with the above
Allow sufficient time to write the essay and have revisions of it reviewed by many people. Customize each essay to each program if possible. Follow the "show, don't tell" rule -- describe experiences you've had that demonstrate your abilities instead of just naming them. Don't include your entire life story, unless specifically requested to do so. Don't make your essay any longer than it absolutely needs to be. Use a laser printer if at all possible.

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Graduate Admissions Exams (GRE'S, GMAT's, LSAT'S, etc.)

Yes, they ARE very important! Test scores are often a key factor when a program is doing its initial screening. You want your scores to be good enough that the committee considers looking at the rest of your application. 

TAKE NO RISKS! Take a practice test, study extensively, or take a prep course! Unlike the SAT's, programs will see the scores of any GRE test you've taken within the last 5 years. Don't comfort yourself by thinking that if you score low the first time, you can take it again. Although you can take it again, it may very well work against you as the schools will know your first score. Treat these exams as though you only have one opportunity for testing. 

While most programs require the General GRE Test, some programs also will require the Subject Test in the discipline. It is recommended that the tests be taken on separate days. Few students can complete six hours of intensive examination and score well. While the general GRE is a computerized test offered all year long, the subject tests are paper-based and are held in April, November and December.

There are varying opinions on when you should take exams. Some students do better on exams if they take them right before or after graduation when course material is fresh (this is especially true for medical programs). However, other students perform better when they've had some time away from school and have a clear objective for attending a graduate or professional program. Although your GRE scores are held for five years, some programs will only accept scores completed within the past three years. Take the test when you will be best prepared!

The following organizations offer prep courses:

Cabrillo College (on-line classes;
Kaplan: 1 800 KAP-TEST 
Princeton Review: 1 800-2REVIEW
Testing for the Public 1-888-3-TESTING

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Letters of Recommendation
Most graduate/professional programs require three letters of recommendation. The following are commonly asked questions regarding letters of reference. 

1. Who should write my letters?

You should have letters from people who can comment on your experience and abilities relevant to graduate study in your chosen field and relevant to the professional work you will ultimately be doing. Generally, it is best to have some letters from professors in your academic major. Professional schools often look for letters from employers as well as from instructors. As Ph.D. programs focus a great deal on research and teaching, they put special emphasis on letters from professors who can attest to the applicant's scholarly potential. 
The strongest letters of reference grow out of an established relationship. Start early! Visit your professors and make sure that you take some small classes or individual study. 

2. What materials should I give my letter writers to help them write a well-informed recommendation?

The materials you give your letter writers should help them write letters that are personalized as well as customized to the field and programs you have chosen.Include a copy of your statement of purpose (give them a rough draft if that's all you have), a copy of relevant class and employer evaluations, papers you have written for them (with their comments), your resume, and any other product or description of relevant accomplishments. Even provide a brief outline of what points you would like the letter to include. 

You can request that letter writers address certain skills or achievements about which they have first-hand knowledge and/or use letters of recommendation to compensate for a weaker part of your application. For instance, let's say you tend to do very poorly on standardized tests so you've received a low verbal score on the GRE's. You have an instructor, however, who has consistently praised your verbal abilities. Make sure you specifically request that s/he address this in his/her letter. Yes, s/he can even acknowledge your trouble with standardized tests. It is wise to put any request like this in writing so the letter writer won't forget. Note that you can't benefit from this if you didn't take the GRE's early enough to have the results already!

3. Is it better to have a high prestige/status instructor write the letter even if they don't know me as well, or is it better to have a lower-ranked instructor write it if they know my abilities better?

Remember, these letters should be as personalized as possible. A letter that begins, "I don’t know this student very well…" will not help in admittance to a graduate program. It is better to have a strong, personalized letter from a junior faculty member than a mediocre letter from a senior person who really doesn't know you. Some prestigious graduate programs will not accept letters from TA’s. Make an effort to meet faculty. If a TA knows you well, ask him/her if he/she would write comments that can be included in the professor's letter. 

4. Is it better for me to waive my legal right to see the letters of reference that are written about me? 

There are varying opinions on this issue. You should discuss your decision with your letter writers. While some people who serve on graduate admissions committees prefer waived letters, feeling they have more credibility, others give equal credibility to all letters. Some go further and are offended by the pressure put on students to waive a legal right. Remember that even members of the same admissions committee may not have the same perspective on this. In addition, members of admissions committees often change year to year so you will be unlikely to know who is on your admissions committee much less the perspective of each member. 

Your decision, then, needs to be based on something else. Pay attention to your own values and concerns. How do you feel about waiving this legal right? 

In summary, there are advantages to waiving your legal right to review your letters and there are different advantages to maintaining that right.

Waiving your legal right to review 
your letters
Not waiving your right to review
  • Some admissions committee members may give more credibility to the letters.
  • Some letter writers will only write letters that the student won't see.
  • You can acquire a pool of letters and can select different letters for different graduate programs.
  • You know with certainty the contents of all your letters.
  • You can hold on to your own copies for your own purposes.

Due to a change in California law, admission committees will be informed whether you waived your right to read the letter. If you waived your right, you may not read or receive a copy of the letter, nor can the GRLS coordinator inform you of the contents.

5. If a letter mentions a weakness of mine, will the letter work against me? 

Particularly if you waive your right to review the letter, ask the letter writer if s/he can write you a positive letter. If an overall glowing letter mentions one or two areas for improvement, the letter may be taken even more seriously than one that makes you sound perfect. The admissions committee is being assured that your letter writer sees you realistically and is willing to be honest. However, if the overall tone of the letter is not positive, this WILL likely count against you. If you want to see a letter because you are concerned that it may not be positive, consider asking someone else to write the reference letter! 

6. If I don't apply to graduate school my senior year but I'm planning to later, when should I get my letters of reference?

There is a lot of debate about this question, too. There are advantages to getting the letters in order before you leave school, but there are different advantages to waiting. Many students worry that their instructors will not remember them. It has been argued, however, that reference letters are professional not personal in nature, and that instructors do not need to remember you to write them. All the materials that you give the instructor (see question #2) should be enough to remind them of your merits as a student and the professional qualities you possess.

Getting letters in order before you leave school Getting letters in order at the time of 
  • You know where to find the instructor.
  • The instructor remembers you.
  • You will have had time to clarify the 
    specific field you wish to study.
  • The information you give your letter writers 
    will be different from that which you would
    have given senior year.
  • The letters will be more customized to the
    specific field and programs you have chosen.

If you do not waive your right to see the letter, you may ask a letter writer if they will write a letter now and then refine it later if you copy it on a disk and give it to them when you know more specifically to which programs you will apply.

The Graduate Reference Letter Service (GRLS) at UCSC does disclose information to schools on whether or not a student has waived his/her legal right to review letters. Please keep this in mind when you choose a confidential or non-confidential letter.

Thank professors who write you letters of recommendation.
Write a warm, sincere thank you letter to each professor who has taken the time to write a letter for you.

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Only a few programs require interviews, although this varies by field. Doctoral programs in the sciences tend to interview prospective candidates. Prepare for interviews by researching the school and being clear about your goals. Be prepared to ask well-informed questions whose answers could not be easily found elsewhere. 

You can obtain handouts with tips for graduate school interviews at the Career Center from the Career Librarian or one of the Career Advisors. 

Follow Up

Even if schools say they will send postcards to let you know what pieces of your application are missing, it is still your responsibility to make sure all your materials have arrived. Take charge! Check early enough that if something is missing, you have time to get it in by the deadline!

Additional Career Center Resources:

Graduate School Workshops (scheduled every quarter) 
The Annual Graduate School Fair in October 
Career Advice Network (CAN) 
Numerous Career Resource Library Books and Other Materials related to Graduate School
Graduate School Test Bulletins (GRE, GMAT, LSAT)

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