Once you have narrowed down your choice of graduate programs, you are ready to begin the application process. Although each program is different, you should expect to begin the search a year to a year and a half prior to the semester that you want to enroll. Most graduate schools have an application deadline between January and March for admittance the following year. It is to your advantage to apply as early as possible, as the first applicants usually have a slight advantage over those received later in the process.
- Graduate Admissions Tests
Most graduate programs require that you submit scores from one or more graduate admissions exams. Often the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). Professional schools have their own tests: The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), for business school, the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Some schools also require GRE subject tests such as psychology, biology, or chemistry. Check with the individual program to determine what tests will be required.
You should plan on taking these tests at least a year prior to the year you plan to enroll. Some of these tests are only given a few times a year, and registration dates are several months in advance of the actual testing date. You may pick up registration materials in the Career Development Center Resource Room. It is a good idea to study for these exams by taking practice tests. They will familiarize you with the types of questions asked and will improve your speed and accuracy on the exam. If you do not test well, you may want to invest in a study guide available through the testing organizations or at many bookstores. You may also consider enrolling in a special course that covers the particular exam. In addition to traditional study guidebooks, there are also software packages available for your computer.
Admissions committees always require official transcripts as part of the application process. This can take several weeks, so plan to request transcripts early. At Penn State Behrend, you can pick up a transcript request form in the Registrar's Office.
- Application Essays
Almost all programs require that you submit an essay or personal statement as part of the application process. The essay is extremely important. While grades and test scores will qualify you as a potential candidate, your essays and recommendations will get you an acceptance.
Admissions committees look for essays that are unusual, thoughtful, mature, well-prepared and which demonstrate that you will succeed. They should be grammatically correct and original, and they should personalize your application. This is the time for you to communicate your goals and what you will gain from attending graduate school. Begin your essay with a strong opening line. This will ensure that you will catch the reader's attention. In the essay, substantiate your interest in the field and in that particular graduate program. You should customize your essay for each school to which you are applying. Finally, communicate that you have a vision of the future and for your career.
While it is tempting to go over the allotted space or word limit, try to keep your essay within the required length. Also, do not make the print extremely tiny in order to fit more text. Be kind to the reader, who is the one evaluating your work. Finally, make sure that you have several people proofread your essays and applications before mailing them.
The Learning Resource Center provides guidance on content and editorial assistance for application essays, and has reference books that contain sample essays. For more information, call Patty Conboy at 898-6140.
- Always pick one extra person to ensure that you have the minimum number.
- Be direct with the people you ask to write a recommendation. Ask them if they will be able to provide a strong recommendation. If not, find someone else.
- Prep them. Provide them with a copy of your resume and a transcript. Provide them with stamps and addressed envelopes.
- Give the people that you choose plenty of time; don't ask for letters of recommendation at the last minute.
- Check on the progress of your recommendation letters or forms on a regular basis to make sure that they arrive to the schools on time. Let your references know the deadlines for each school.
When filling out the application, never leave anything blank. Make sure that the application is completed neatly, accurately, and is free of errors. Your application should convey your sincere interest in the program that you are applying to, as well as your future goals and direction and your major strengths, skills, and achievements. If you have a high-quality paper or lab that is directly related to the program or will demonstrate your competency in an area, then you may want to include it as well. Always be truthful. Making something up will come back to haunt you and will most likely jeopardize your candidacy. Include any research in which you are involved, no matter how insignificant it seems to you. Use working titles to refer to your research projects in essays and on applications. Try to get published before you apply. Submit your work to student journals in your field of study, get listed on a professor's article, or submit to a major journal. It is not necessary to be published, but it can sometimes help.
You must have all of the required elements in by the deadline date. The sooner you turn in your application packet, however, the greater your advantage. Fifty percent of all applications will be sent in the last month. One way to be ahead of the crowd is to move all of the deadlines up by a month for yourself. For schools with rolling admissions, you will be enhancing your chances for success by responding early.
See the Graduate School Action Plan to make sure you are on track to meet most schools' deadlines.