Graduate School Application Tips & Advice

Applying to graduate school can be both exciting and a little overwhelming. You’re making a decision that could advance your career or allow you to dive deeper into a subject area that fulfills your personal goals, but you’re also making a significant investment of your time and finances.

With proper research, a clear head, and confidence, however, you can find the perfect program and submit an application that the admissions committee will be hard-pressed to reject.

Are you thinking about applying to graduate school? Here’s what every prospective student needs to know.

Tips for Applying to Graduate School

1. Find a program that aligns with your goals.

Finding the right graduate program can sometimes feel like the hardest part of the process. It’s important to find the right program for you, and with different degrees and certificates popping up at universities across the country, there are likely dozens of options available to you.

Write down the most important features of your ideal program before you begin your research. For example, do you want a full-time, on-campus experience or a flexible, online environment? Do you want research-based coursework or a program with experiential opportunities integrated into the curriculum? Once you have your list of non-negotiable features, you can kick off your research.

Learn More: How to Organize Your Grad School Search

After you’ve explored a range of programs, consider your career goals and how each program can help you achieve them. If you’d like to hone your skills to work in a specific focus area of a broader field, for instance, a program that offers a concentration or certificate aligned with those skills can be beneficial. On the other hand, if you’d like to have flexibility in your chosen career, pursuing a broader degree program that can be applied across various functions may be better suited to your needs.

Investing in this research upfront will help you find a graduate program that is right for your specific goals and allow you to feel more confident in your choice when it comes time to complete and submit your application.

2. Ask questions

The old-school idea that the admissions office is a scary room filled with judgment is a falsehood. Today, graduate school admissions counselors are here to help guide you through the application process process. They want to be there to support your educational journey. If you have any questions, ask. Don’t worry that your interactions with the admissions team could impact your application. If anything, your interactions will only help improve your application before review and help demonstrate your sincere interest in the program.

Many colleges and universities offer online resources where prospective students can find information about the application process and requirements. Getting in touch with an admissions counselor, though, may be the most efficient way to find answers to specific questions you might have. Engaging with them will also give you a chance to get to know the school better and decide if what they offer is really the right fit for your needs. 

Consider This: Admissions counselors are well-versed in the logistics of application requirements, individual programs, and financial aid and scholarships. If you have specific questions, be sure to reach out to them for the clarity and insight you need at any step of the process.

Prospective students should not be afraid of contacting faculty, either. If there’s a particular class you’re interested in taking or a lab you hope to work in, contact the faculty member in charge. Ask about that faculty member’s research and pose any questions about the degree program that you might have. You may have a better chance of standing out during the admissions process if you express interest early.


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3. Understand the timeline.

Although the application process varies by college or university, the vast majority will require you to submit your transcript, letters of recommendation, professional resumé, and statement of purpose. Your transcript alone could take weeks to be delivered and processed, so don’t wait until the last minute to start applying.

In an effort to avoid procrastination, consider developing a calendar of deadlines. Map out when you need to apply to each of your desired schools and the specific requirements for that program. For example, if you need to submit your undergraduate grades, create a to-do at least a month before the application deadline that reminds you to order your transcript.   

4. Update your resumé.

Before sending your resumé, make sure it’s optimized for your grad school application. In general, your experience should be listed in chronological order, starting with your current position, and described in bullet points using action-packed verbs, such as “achieved,” “improved,” “launched,” “negotiated,” or “trained.” Quantify any achievements and show your results, whether it’s the number of people you’ve managed, dollars you’ve raised, or articles you’ve written.

To help your resumé align with your grad school application, be sure to tailor it to the program you intend to pursue by showcasing your skills, highlighting relevant experience, and including your professional achievements.

5. Write a strong statement of purpose.

While some might think that a statement of purpose—or personal statement—is an afterthought during your application review, many admissions committees, consider it one of the most important components of your application. The statement of purpose can make or break your application for admission.

The key to crafting an impactful statement of purpose is to not get caught up in what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. Use this opportunity to tell the committee more about who you are and your background while also explaining specifically what you hope to get out of the program. Be sure to address the unique features the school offers that interest you most.

For Example: If you plan to apply to Northeastern, you might consider highlighting experiential learning as the unique feature that interests you about your program. In this case, you might explain that you’re excited to tackle real-world projects in your desired industry and learn from faculty who are experts in your field of study.

No matter where you apply, a strong statement of purpose should include:

  • Insight into what drives you, whether that’s professional advancement, personal growth, or both
  • The features about the school that appeal to you most
  • Your expectations of the degree program and its potential impact
  • Authenticity and a clear picture of what makes you unique

6. Choose appropriate references.

Letters of recommendation are another piece of the application process that helps elevate your application for admission. When it comes to asking for letters of recommendation, carefully consider whom you’re contacting. You want to choose someone who knows you well and can speak to your strengths. 

Reach out to a professor you regularly interacted with who can detail your academic accomplishments and describe why you were a standout student. You can also ask a former supervisor who’s working in a field that aligns with the graduate program you’re pursuing. No matter your choice, make sure it’s someone you know in a professional or academic capacity—not a friend or family member—who will to provide a positive recommendation representative of your character. 

You can typically provide either a professional or academic recommendation in support of your application, but programs have specific requirements around who is writing the recommendation and what the content needs to address. Research what each program requires before you coordinate your references.

When asking for a recommendation, provide your chosen reference with as much information about your request as possible. The more insight you can provide, the better your recommendation letter will be. Include in your first outreach:

  • The name of the school you’re applying to
  • The degree you’re pursuing
  • Why you want to enroll in that specific program
  • Your resumé
  • A deadline

Make sure you keep your timeline in mind as you embark on these communications, especially if you reach out to a professor. It’s likely your letter isn’t the only one he or she needs to write, so be respectful of their time by giving as much notice as possible. Four weeks is ideal. 

7. Proofread your materials before applying.

You could be a perfect fit for your desired program, but if you submit materials that are riddled with spelling and grammar errors, the admissions team might dismiss your application before ever digging into it. Triple-check your materials and make sure that when you do press send, you’ve included all necessary documentation and hit all deadlines set in place by the university.

It’s easy for an individual to unknowingly overlook their own mistakes, so it can also be helpful to ask a friend to review your materials before you submit them, as well. Reading your materials out loud to yourself can also help you spot potential mistakes.

Though this may seem like a lot of effort, remember: Your application is the first impression you will make on the university, and it’s important to put your best foot forward.

8. Be true to yourself.

Of all the tips for applying to graduate school, the most important is being true to yourself. Being perfect is not the recipe for admission; admissions committees want to know the real you and understand your ambitions. Whether you’re a working professional hoping graduate school can bring you to the next level of your career or a recent graduate looking to further master your chosen skill, just be yourself, and you’ll start off in the right direction.

Applying to Northeastern’s Graduate Programs

If you are interested in applying to one of Northeastern University’s 200+ online, on-ground, or hybrid graduate degree and certificate programs, there are various resources available to help you along the way. 

First, it is important to understand the application process and requirements. Specific application requirements vary by college and degree, so be sure to explore the admissions information for your desired program before getting started. In general, however, the application requirements for Northeastern’s graduate programs include:

  • A completed online application 
  • Transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate schools you’ve previously attended
  • A statement of purpose that details your goals and interest in the program
  • One to three letters of recommendation (varies by program)
  • Your updated professional resumé or curriculum vitae 
  • Your official GRE, GMAT, or LSAT test scores (if required)
  • A non-refundable application fee 

Additionally, international students who are non-native English speakers must submit proof of English proficiency in the form of TOEFL, IELTS, PTE, or Duolingo test scores, though the minimum scores vary by program. Students who do not meet the minimum requirement for these scores may also apply to the university’s Global Pathways program.

As always, students who intend to apply to a graduate program at Northeastern should also research the application deadlines for their program of interest. Be sure to set a timeline for yourself and avoid procrastination to ensure that you’re able to submit all of the required materials on time.

The faculty and admissions team at Northeastern are always available to help prospective students throughout this journey, and prospective students are always encouraged to reach out to ask questions and get personalized advice. Whether you need information about selecting the right program, the application process, program-specific requirements, financial aid, or anything in between, the admissions team is here to help.

The First Step Toward Grad School Success

Once you’ve made the decision to further your education and pursue a graduate degree or certificate, submitting your application is the first step toward being a successful graduate student. 

No matter where you choose to apply and ultimately attend, there are countless resources available to help you throughout the process. 

To learn more about the specific schools and programs you are interested in, it’s always best to start by reaching out to admissions teams and faculty to get to know what makes them unique and ask any questions you might have. Building these relationships early on will help you find a program that fits your personal and professional goals, and can ultimately help you through the process of getting accepted to a program that’s right for you.

Are you interested in applying to graduate school? Explore Northeastern’s degree and certificate programs, and contact us for personalized advice.

This article was originally published in August 2017. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.