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Applying to Graduate School

Usually a complete application includes:
   »Application form
   »Official transcripts
   »Statement of purpose/personal statement
   »Letters of recommendation
   »Application fee
   »Test scores
   »Financial aid forms (and you may want to apply elsewhere for funding, too)

Starting early is, as usual, your best bet for success in the graduate school application process!

This is a general guide. Check carefully for yourself to see what the programs require, how you should submit your application materials, where you should send them. You may need to submit a resumé, a portfolio, or a writing sample. Usually an essay from a class that pertains to your long-term interests will suffice for a writing sample. Submit a clean, proofread copy, not one with an instructor's comments on it. Pay attention to specific details here: does the program, department, or professional school want one or two writing samples? How long should each one be? Again, respect the page or word limits specified in the application. Some schools might invite you to an interview; if possible, you should accept this invitation, as it enables you to make personal contact with the admissions committee rather than solely presenting yourself on paper.

Many people apply to a range of schools. The choice is yours, but the more applications submit (to programs with which you are a good fit, that is), the better your chances. Ask yourself: if this program, department, or professional school were my only option, would I accept the offer? If you would not, don't waste the admissions committee's time nor potentially send to the waitlist someone who is eager to attend.

Organization is key as you proceed through the application process. Note the deadlines for all your various application materials at each of the schools to which you will apply. If you must take standardized tests, make sure you register and take them early enough for scores to be forwarded to your chosen schools on time. For example, GRE subject tests are only administered three times a year, and it can take six weeks for those scores to be forwarded. Give recommendation writers at least six weeks to produce letters in support of your application.

Ideally, you should submit your applications as soon as possible. If something is missing from your application, you will have a chance to correct the problem. If admission is on a rolling basis, you will definitely benefit from submitting your application as soon as you are able.

Read and follow all instructions carefully, make sure all your materials are indeed forwarded and received, and keep copies of all your application materials, just in case.

Application form
Many schools now prefer that you complete the application online. Check carefully for typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors before submitting your information, essays, and so forth. If you are submitting a paper application, use a typewriter or print neatly. You might want to practice on a photocopy of the form first. Give yourself ample time to deal with the applications; start at least two months in advance of deadlines.

Official Transcripts
Most schools require official transcripts from all the schools you have attended and will expect the Registrar's office to mail your transcripts. USC Official transcripts cost $10 each. Again, check the details for each program: some programs ask that your transcripts be mailed to the graduate school, and some ask that transcripts come directly to the department. For USC transcripts see You may order transcripts by logging into your MyUSC account, click on OASIS, then go to "Record Ordering Services" tab.

A word about grades
Unless a program, department, or professional school specifies the minimum GPA required for admission, most schools expect you to have earned a GPA of at least 3.0, but in some programs an application strong in other areas such as a compelling personal statement, writing sample, and strong letters of recommendation can make up for a lower GPA. Do not give up on the idea of graduate school because your GPA seems low; you may have to broaden your search to find schools with a more forgiving admissions policy, but grad school is not out of the question for any student. Grades in your major and in Senior and Junior year are the most important, and some schools even ask for a GPA calculated across your last 64 units. Everyone, whether worried about their grades or not, would be well advised to think about a "Plan B" in case graduate school applications do not work out.

Statement of Purpose or Personal Statement
As always, read all instructions carefully before you start! Some programs may ask you to answer specific questions in your statement, and others may simply ask for a description of your research interests. Professional schools will generally expect some account of your achievements and your personal qualities and motivations with examples to support your claims. For academic research in the humanities and sciences, however, you will be expected to describe your research interests and academic background, and not your own personal history.

You should write several drafts of your personal statement. Be conscious of writing with a purpose, just as you would when writing any other essay. Focus on getting your ideas on paper first; you can refine and tighten your essay later.

You are trying to create an engaging portrait of yourself and/or your research interests, so you do not write a generic and lifeless list of your accomplishments. On the other hand, you should not try to impress by being excessively elaborate; be direct and honest, and try to make the essay flow naturally. Be specific, and avoid vague generalizations. Keep your tone positive.

You should ask several people to read your essay; you might ask your recommendation writers or anyone with knowledge of your field to read it. You should feel free to consult the Writing Center (THH 321) and/or the Pre-Grad School Advisor(s). Again, read each school's instructions carefully before you start.

Letters of Recommendation
Most schools ask for three letters of recommendation, but check each school's requirements. Your recommendation writers should be people who know you well who can about your academic performance in detail and attest to your suitability to begin graduate study. You should choose professors in your major field of study; professors with whom you have worked in a research capacity; or employers whose input is relevant to your application, particularly is you are applying to business school. As a rule of thumb, you should try to ask Associate Professors or Professors to write your letters; however, a detailed letter from an Assistant Professor will serve your application far better than a vague, impersonal letter from a celebrated tenured professor. Do not seek character references from family or friends, even if they happen to be judges or doctors; letters should speak to your academic or professional performance, not just your personal qualities.

Ideally, letters of recommendation should come out of relationships with faculty that you have developed over time. Make use of office hours and other opportunities for you and your professors to get to know each other. You should ask your recommenders to write your letters in a face-to-face conversation, if at all possible. Talk with them at least 6-8 weeks in advance of the date you want them submit the letters, and let them know the date when you intend to submit your applications. If you are applying during your Senior year, talk with professors in September if your applications are due in the Winter; professors have immense workloads, so they will appreciate having plenty of time to write your letters. Provide them with the necessary forms or websites for electronic submission; if professors need to submit letters in hard copy, provide them with stamped, addressed envelopes, and if you need to submit their letters with your application, provide them with an envelope and ask that they sign the flap after sealing the envelope. Ask your professors if you can provide any extra documents to assist them; do they need a copy of your personal statement? Your resumé? If the deadline is fast approaching, gently remind recommenders of the due date; sometimes they need a reminder and will appreciate your gesture. It's alright to politely follow-up with recommenders to make sure they have submitted your letter. It's a good idea to ask for an extra letter or two in case one of your recommenders fails to meet your deadline.

Application Fee
Application fees usually fall in the $35-$100 range. Some highly competitive schools set high application fees in order to discourage frivolous applications. The fees are non-refundable. Schools will waive the fee if you can prove financial hardship.

Test Scores
Most schools and programs require that you take an admissions test, alhough the amount of emphasis they place on the scores varies. Most academic programs require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and/or GRE Subject Tests, while business schools usually require the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). International students may be required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), an English proficiency test. At this writing, the fee for GRE general test is $115, and the GMAT $225; again, if you can prove financial need, the fee can be waived. You can have scores for up to four schools forwarded by giving their code numbers on the test day; you can request that scores be forwarded to more schools by paying an additional fee. For details, see the websites below; you can register for these tests by phone, mail, or online.

Check your deadlines against the dates the tests are available. Remember to allow time for scores to be forwarded to the schools. The computer-based GRE general test and the GMAT, for example, can be taken year-round, but the GRE subject tests, required by many programs, are available only in April, November, and December and you must sign up for them at least six weeks in advance (you may be able to register later if you pay a late fee). You will need to make an appointment to take the test, so register early in order to get a seat on the day and at the time of your choice.

Plan on taking your standardized tests at least twice. The GRE and GMAT will forward all your scores from the last three years, so admissions committees will see if you've improved with time. In any event, don't take the test before studying just to see how you do. Unlike undergraduate admissions, GRE and GMAT scores won't make or your break your application, but they are important as one more factor for admissions committees to consider.

Preparation classes for admissions tests are offered, for a fee. Before you register, though, you might want to try preparing on your own. On the other hand, the classes serve to help you structure your study time and offer test-taking techniques. Various good study books, some with CD-ROMs that will help you acclimate to computer-based tests, are also available. For more information about the tests see one of the following websites:

    * GRE:
    * GMAT:
    * TOEFL:

Financial Aid Forms
If you are applying for financial aid, you will likely have to fill out a Free Application For Student Aid, or FAFSA, a financial questionnaire (see For advice on loans and other financial matters, see or FAFSA forms available in January, and you should submit them as soon as possible. Note that you do not need to be admitted to apply for financial aid. Many schools also require you to complete their own financial aid forms; check to make sure you have all the required forms.

See the next section on the Pre-Grad website for more information on funding and financial aid.