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How To Prepare for Graduate School: 10 Must-Do’s Before You Apply

A young man with glasses and a backpack sitting outdoors using a laptop, smiling at the camera.

Graduate school is the next level of academic excellence — it provides advanced training to deepen your expertise in a specific field or prepare you for a new professional path.

For students who want to begin their path toward a master’s or doctorate, you’ll need more than just an application to take the next step. You also need an acceptance letter.

So, how do you ensure your journey doesn’t stall in the application process?

Being prepared is the key to being a competitive candidate. Follow these tips to shine with strong test scores, transcripts, recommendation letters, personal statements, and more.

Grad School Tips: What You Should Know Before You Go

Before you start working on your application, it’s helpful to know all of the moving parts so you can find resources and grad school tips to help you work smarter, not harder.

1. Understand Graduate School Requirements & Application Materials

Being accepted to graduate school involves meeting certain requirements set by each program. To boost your chances of acceptance, it's usually a good idea to apply to multiple programs. 

When applying to multiple schools, be sure to keep a few things in mind:

  • Meet deadlines for admission and financial aid. The earlier you apply, the better.
  • Staying organized by tracking deadlines, required materials, and progress status for each program can help make your applications the best they can be.
  • Find resources to help manage several applications at once — like a spreadsheet that details program information, application requirements, and deadlines. When you keep track of your progress, you can increase the accuracy of your application and cultivate peace of mind.
  • Have hope from start to finish. Even if you don't meet the academic requirements, you still have options that will help you strengthen your application and reapply in the future:
    • Take extra courses to raise your GPA.
    • Enroll in a post-baccalaureate program.
    • Gain relevant work experience.

2. Attend Information Sessions and Networking Events: Preparing for the Grad School Application Process

One thing you can do to stand out as an applicant, regardless of your application, is to express interest in your school’s program:

  • Check university program pages to find both live and recorded resources. Watching webinars about funding for graduate students and other available supports will signal your engagement and preparedness as an applicant.
  • Attend networking events like information sessions, graduate fairs, and facility tours.
  • Connect with the school through their admissions reps, current students, and faculty.
  • Try to gain insights into the program's culture, curriculum, and admission process.
  • Seek answers about requirements, funding, and qualities successful applicants possess.

3. Request Letters of Recommendation: Who to Ask and How

If you want to provide admissions committees with valuable perspectives on your abilities, potential, and personal qualities from those who know you well, you’ll need to make sure you ask the right people for letters of recommendation — and ask them the right way:

  • Find in-depth resources to help navigate the process of asking for recommendation letters.
  • Choose recommenders who know you well and can speak to your accomplishments, with academic professors being the best for graduate and PhD programs.
  • Maintain relationships with these professors by updating them on your academic and professional pursuits.
  • Provide recommenders with all the information needed to write the letter, including school names, deadlines, CV and resume, statement of purpose, and admissions essays.
  • Adhere strictly to submission guidelines provided by schools.
  • Follow up with recommenders, thank them for their time and effort, and share good news once you have been accepted into a program.

4. Prepare a Convincing Statement of Purpose: Personal Statements for Graduate School

The statement of purpose is essential for gaining entry into top graduate programs. It serves as an introduction to your research interests and why the specific program appeals to you.

But really – it’s a lot easier when you keep calm and follow these guidelines instead:

  • Find in-depth resources to help navigate the process of writing personal statements for grad school.
  • Align your research goals with the faculty's research within the program to demonstrate a good fit and understanding of the department's mission.
  • Addressing your weaknesses in the SOP can be beneficial, showcasing your willingness to improve.
  • Keep the SOP concise, ideally not exceeding two pages.
  • Check for mistakes and ensure the correct documents are attached to the right institution.

5. Study for Standardized Tests: GRE vs. GMAT, Explained

To be a competitive applicant in many graduate programs, you’ll need strong scores on tests like the GRE or GMAT. Although many schools, like SMU, have adopted a more holistic approach to graduate admissions, graduate admissions exams are still relevant.

There are a few things you can do to prepare — and ace — the test:

  • Understand the bird’s-eye-view with comprehensive resources to help you pass the GRE.
  • Get official guides, like the ones on ETS’s website, to learn the format and practice questions.
  • Develop a study schedule. Regular practice over months is key.
  • Consider a prep course or online resources for support.
  • Practice pacing yourself with timed sections.
  • Stay motivated by setting goals and celebrating progress.

6. Polish It: Why Your CV for Grad School Matters

Creating a curriculum vitae doesn’t have to be complicated, but it is necessary for applying to grad school. Admissions committees will look for a few things when it comes to this document, so make sure you prepare your CV the right way:

  • Understand the difference between a resume and a CV.
  • Use a simple and consistent format with clear headings, bullet points, and a standard font to ensure readability.
  • Develop a master file containing all your professional and academic history, and then create tailored versions of your CV for each program.
  • Regularly update your CV with current information, including new job positions, projects, and contact details to keep it fresh and easily editable.
  • Keep your CV concise, focusing on the most relevant and impactful information, and only provide extensive details in your cover letter or during interviews.

7. Research Financial Aid For Graduate School

To get the greatest return on your investment, you can offset grad school costs with various types of financial aid:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Fellowships
  • Assistantships
  • Loans

Thankfully, securing funding can be easier with the help of university websites and scholarship databases. The key is to make sure you take advantage of them:

8. Submit Applications on Time: Knowing When to Apply To Grad School

Above all, whether you meet deadlines during the application process can be a major difference between a successful application — or an unsuccessful one. Setting up a system that works for you can help avoid this dilemma:

  • Consider making a calendar highlighting every application deadline for your target programs.
  • Set reminders to complete and submit components well ahead of time
  • Request materials like transcripts and recommendation letters early to avoid delays
  • Double-check that all required items are complete and accurate

9. Get Feedback (and Proofread!)

As obvious as it sounds, a professional, mistake-free application leaves a lasting positive impression.

When you’ve been staring at the same application for too long, sometimes you miss those little mistakes that can be a deal-breaker for competitive programs. That’s why seeking feedback from professors, mentors, and advisors who have “fresh eyes” is invaluable for improving your application package. Their insights can help you present your qualifications and goals more compellingly (and fix any errors in the process!).

10. Prepare for Grad School Interviews

Some graduate programs require interviews to evaluate your communication skills, motivation, and program fit. If you come prepared for graduate school interviews, you’ll already have an edge over applicants who didn’t spend that extra time and effort: 

  • Research the interview process for each school. Understand who will be interviewing you, and determine if they will have access to your application materials.
  • Know the commonly asked interview questions and practice answering them.
  • Come prepared by arriving early, dressing professionally, and bringing important documents like your resume, CV, and questions for the interviewer.
  • Be ready to talk confidently about yourself and highlight why you’re a good fit for the school.
  • Be mindful of nonverbal communication by practicing good posture, maintaining eye contact, and relaxing.
  • Show gratitude by thanking the faculty and staff after the interview.

Applying to SMU Graduate Programs Made Simple

At SMU, we understand the graduate school journey. We know that when we foster a supportive, engaging environment, applicants and current students can have what they need to thrive.

If you’re looking to apply to a graduate program, you might have questions like:

  • Which documents and materials are required for the application, and what is the best way to gather and submit them?
  • Are there any standardized tests (such as the GRE or GMAT) that I need to take, and how can I adequately prepare and submit them?
  • How competitive is the application process for the programs I am interested in, and what can I do to strengthen my application and increase my chances of acceptance?

The good news? You don’t have to go it alone.

We’ve put together a resource with everything you need to know so you don’t have to. Read our guide, How to Apply to Graduate School at SMU, to find guidance on all of these questions and more. 

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How to Apply to Graduate School at SMU

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