A Note from BestColleges on the Coronavirus and Graduate Applications
Many colleges and universities altered their graduate admissions processes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For some schools, these changes include eliminating standardized testing requirements. Several institutions have canceled campus tours and other in-person events.
If you plan on applying for graduate school in the upcoming months, confirm the deadline with an admissions advisor, as some schools have pushed these dates back. All graduate students can expect to take most, if not all of their courses remotely.
At BestColleges, we are working to provide information and resources to students about the impact of the coronavirus on college life. Read our latest coronavirus resources for students.
Graduate school offers intensive academic training that centers on research and leadership development. Master's programs generally take two years to complete, while doctoral programs usually take 4-6 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about three million students enrolled in postbaccalaureate programs for fall 2018.
This guide helps teach you how to apply to graduate school, covering common criteria like GPA requirements and standardized tests and providing answers to frequently asked questions.
Should You Go to Graduate School?
By completing graduate school, you can open the door to more employment opportunities and higher salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that master's degree-holders earn a median annual salary that is about $13,000 higher than workers with only a bachelor's degree. They also experience a lower unemployment rate than bachelor's degree-holders.
You should go to graduate school if entry into your professional field requires advanced credentials. Master's and doctoral programs can also provide efficient paths to career advancement, especially if your employer will help pay for your degree.
With the flexibility of part-time enrollment, evening/weekend classes, and online learning, anyone can attend graduate school if they prepare correctly.
When Should You Apply to Graduate School?
The full graduate school application process can take more than a year. If you want to enroll in the fall, start planning in May of the previous year (i.e., about 15 months in advance) by compiling a list of prospective master's or doctoral programs. Take a practice version of the required standardized test to gauge how much preparation you need before registering for the exam. Give yourself at least three months to study.
In general, you should apply to at least four graduate schools. If the programs are highly competitive, it might benefit you to submit up to 10 applications. Although universities generally set their graduate application deadlines in December/January for fall enrollment, your institution may accept early applicants in September.
Graduate Program Admission Requirements
The following section covers common graduate admission requirements, like a bachelor's degree and work experience. You can also learn about general application materials, including test results, statements of purpose, and recommendation letters.
Master's and doctoral programs generally require applicants to have relevant bachelor's credentials. Depending on the field, graduate schools may require an undergraduate degree with accreditation from a specific organization. For example, some MBA programs only accept applicants with bachelor's degrees accredited by either the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs or the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
Because graduate schools build on prior knowledge and skills, relevant professional experience is a fairly common admission requirement. Depending on their major, master's applicants may need at least one year in their field. For doctoral programs, applicants may need about 2-3 years of research, teaching, and/or applied leadership experience.
Some universities evaluate prospective students holistically. However, GPA remains an important indication of academic potential and is a popular prerequisite for fellowships and assistantships. Master's programs often require a minimum 2.5 GPA, while doctoral programs generally require a 3.0 GPA or higher.
There is currently no graduate equivalent of the Common Application. Each graduate school creates its own forms, which applicants usually complete through a secure online portal. General application information includes contact information, proof of legal residency status, academic information, and the names of references.
Prospective graduate students must submit transcripts from all previous postsecondary institutions. Some universities allow you to submit unofficial copies to speed up the admissions process; however, they will ask for official documents when you enroll.
Letters of Recommendation
Graduate schools typically ask applicants to provide 2-3 recommendations from individuals who can attest to a student's personal character and professional accomplishments. Letters can come from professors, mentors, and employers.
This document, which is usually 2-3 pages, describes an applicant's relevant accomplishments and explains why they want to attend this particular graduate school.
A growing number of schools are eliminating standardized testing requirements. However, many colleges and universities still require applicants to submit GMAT, GRE, LSAT, or MCAT scores, depending on their field of study. Non-native English speakers must also demonstrate language proficiency by submitting IELTS or TOEFL results.
The typical graduate application fee ranges from $50-$85. Colleges may offer fee waivers to students experiencing financial hardships.
Graduate vs. Undergraduate Admissions
The undergraduate and graduate admissions processes share similar requirements. Both applicant groups often need to submit transcripts, standardized test scores, and personal statements. However, master's and doctoral programs are more likely to require relevant professional experience.
Since graduate schools typically admit fewer students than undergraduate programs, they tend to evaluate applicants more rigorously, often requiring candidates to visit campus and complete interviews with instructors and program directors.
Master's and doctoral programs are more likely to require relevant professional experience.
Master's vs. Ph.D. Admissions
Both master's and Ph.D. programs prepare graduates for advanced roles in their fields.
Master's degrees are typically more versatile, delivering theory-focused coursework for students pursuing academic careers and practitioner tracks for professionals interested in applied skill development. Terminal Ph.D. programs center on research, preparing many students for careers as professors and researchers.
Many master's programs require a 2.5 minimum GPA, while Ph.D. and other doctoral programs often require a 3.0 or higher. Doctoral programs also tend to evaluate experience more rigorously. Program directors and professors dedicate a lot of time and resources to doctoral students, so they want to ensure that the students they admit have the skills, knowledge, and commitment needed to succeed.
Most business, law, and medical graduate schools require applicants to submit GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT scores, respectively.
Graduate School Exams
Standardized test scores provide data-driven markers of a student's academic capabilities. The GRE is the most common test for master's and doctoral programs. It is somewhat similar to the ACT and SAT.
Most business, law, and medical graduate schools require applicants to submit GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT scores, respectively. However, a growing number of master's and doctoral programs no longer require test scores due to the increasingly popular argument that standardized testing provides an advantage to students with the money to pay for test preparation courses.
The following sections provide overviews of these graduate school exams, including their structure and content. You can also learn how to apply to and study for these tests.
Graduate Record Exam (GRE)
Offered by Educational Testing Service (ETS), the GRE General Test covers math and vocabulary knowledge, critical analysis, and problem-solving. Many graduate schools, including some MBA programs, use the GRE to assess academic preparedness.
- Who should take the GRE?
In general, you should plan to take the GRE if you want to earn a master's or doctoral degree outside of law and medicine. Consult your university's graduate admissions department to find out if the test is required or recommended.
- How is the GRE formatted?
The GRE is a computer-based standardized test that takes three hours and 45 minutes. Test-takers answer multiple-choice questions and write two essays across six sections, including verbal and quantitative reasoning.
The GRE also includes two unscored sections, one of which is unidentified. The identified unscored section always appears at the end.
- How does GRE scoring work?
Students receive three scaled scores: 130-170 for verbal reasoning, 130-170 for quantitative reasoning, and 0-6 for analytical writing. They also receive a percentile ranking.
Students who plan ahead and give themselves enough time can retake the GRE if they are unhappy with their initial score.
- How do you study for the GRE?
Students should spend 1-3 months studying for the GRE. ETS provides a variety of test preparation resources, including free guides on how to write the issue and argument essays. Khan Academy is a useful website for math practice, and companies like The Princeton Review and Kaplan offer both free tools and paid courses.
|Test Dates||Students can take the GRE General Test throughout the year, with dates offered each month at locations all over the world. To register for the exam, candidates need to create an ETS account, which they can also use to view their scores and order official reports.|
|Registration Deadline||ETS accepts appointments on a first-come, first-served basis. Students should register as early as possible to secure their spot; seating is limited.|
|Fees||GRE General Test fees vary based on country, with U.S. students paying $205. ETS provides fee reduction vouchers for candidates who demonstrate financial need as calculated based on their FAFSA results. Your employer and graduate school may also offer assistance.|
The GRE General Test is delivered on a computer at Prometric Test Centers. Students should choose a location based on proximity and available dates/times.
On test day, candidates should bring two forms of valid identification and leave prohibited items at home or in their car.
Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)
More than 2,100 graduate business schools worldwide use the GMAT to measure the academic level of prospective students — particularly MBA applicants. The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) develops and administers the GMAT, using peer-reviewed research and the assistance of business faculty to ensure the exam remains current and accurate.
- Who should take the GMAT?
Business students applying to graduate school can often submit either GMAT or GRE scores. In general, the GMAT is preferable for candidates with strong data analysis skills; unlike the GRE, the GMAT does not allow students to use a calculator to solve any of the quantitative questions.
Students should ask graduate admissions departments about a college's views on the two exams before making a decision.
- How is the GMAT formatted?
Spanning three hours and 30 minutes, the GMAT consists of three sections of multiple-choice questions covering quantitative, verbal, and integrated reasoning. Students must also complete an analytical writing assessment, crafting an essay that analyzes a complex argument.
GMAC designed the GMAT as an adaptive test, meaning that students' answers affect the difficulty of the subsequent questions they receive within a section.
- How does GMAT scoring work?
According to The Princeton Review, the average GMAT score between 2015 and 2017 was 556. Prospective students should research their graduate school's minimum and average scores before deciding how much they need to study.
Business programs often look favorably on applicants who show improvements in their scores after retaking the GMAT. Certain schools even take the highest scores from individual sections across multiple tests.
- How do you study for the GMAT?
The amount of time students should spend preparing for the GMAT varies based on how they score on their first practice test and the amount of time they can dedicate to study each week. Generally, you should spend at least three months preparing for the GMAT.
|Test Dates||Like the GRE, students can take the GMAT year-round. Test-takers should use the GMAT Handbook to decide when to register, taking into account the time needed to study and their graduate school application deadlines.|
Because the GMAT does not operate strict test dates, registration deadlines do not exist. However, GMAC recommends that students register 2-3 months ahead of their preferred date by creating an online account.
Test-takers can also register by phone, fax, and mail.
|Fees||Geographic location determines the GMAT fee, with U.S. students paying $275 to take the exam. Graduate business schools can apply for up to 10 fee waivers from GMAC each year to support students with financial hardships.|
|Test Administration||Students take the GMAT on computers at official testing centers near them. GMAC does not offer a paper version of the exam. The GMAT Handbook details test center processes and rules, including prohibited items and how to take the two optional breaks.|
Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
Administered by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), the LSAT is widely used by universities in the United States and Canada to gauge the potential of prospective students. While some law schools accept other exams, the LSAT is a strict requirement for programs accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA).
- Who should take the LSAT?
Students who want to attend law school — particularly an ABA-accredited program — should take the LSAT. According to an official LSAC report, more than 133,000 candidates took the LSAT in the 2019-2020 academic year, most for the first time.
Graduate schools use LSAT scores to assess a student's chances of passing the bar exam and to determine financial aid eligibility.
- How is the LSAT formatted?
The LSAT lasts three hours and 30 minutes and consists of multiple-choice questions across two logic reasoning sections, one analytical reasoning section, and one reading comprehension section. Students must also produce an ungraded writing sample that graduate schools use to evaluate an applicant's ability to make an argument supported by logic and facts.
- How does LSAT scoring work?
A student's LSAT score is based on the number of correct answers, with no penalties for incorrect responses. The official report contains a cumulative score ranging from 120-180 and a percentile rank showing how the candidate performed against other test-takers.
To find your target LSAT score, you can access The Princeton Review's law school database.
- How do you study for the LSAT?
Students should spend three months preparing for the LSAT if they can dedicate at least 20 hours to weekly study. LSAC provides free resources, including two practice tests and tools you can use to identify patterns of error in your performance.
The LSAT is traditionally offered nine times each year, usually on Mondays and Saturdays. Puerto Rican testing centers offer a Spanish LSAT once per year.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these dates may change. Consult LSAC's website for up-to-date information on test dates.
Students can register for the LSAT online or by phone. LSAC typically sets the registration deadline five weeks before test day; however, these regulations are also changing in light of coronavirus quarantine measures.
You can learn more about current test dates and deadlines from LSAC.
|Fees||Students must pay $200 to take the LSAT. LSAC charges a $50 fee to process refunds and $125 to change the test date or location. You can apply for a fee waiver based on financial need.|
The LSAT is typically administered in two parts, with candidates taking the multiple-choice exam at testing centers and completing the writing portion on their own computers.
In light of COVID-19 restrictions, LSAC created the LSAT-Flex — a fully remote version of the test students can take on their computers using secure proctoring software.
Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
Nearly all U.S. medical schools and many Canadian medical schools require prospective students to submit MCAT scores. The exam is developed and administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) — a nonprofit organization whose members include universities, teaching hospitals, and academic societies.
- Who should take the MCAT?
Students should take the MCAT if they want to get into a recognized health professions school in the U.S. or Canada. The candidate pool consists of all premedical students pursuing veterinary, osteopathic, allopathic, and podiatric medicine.
AAMC data shows that over 209,000 people sat for the MCAT between 2017 and 2019.
- How is the MCAT formatted?
Lasting seven hours and 30 minutes, the MCAT is a computer-based exam that uses multiple-choice questions to evaluate students' content knowledge and analytical skills. The test consists of four sections: biological and biochemical foundations of living systems; chemical and physical foundations of biological systems; psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior; and critical analysis and reasoning skills.
- How does MCAT scoring work?
About 30 days after taking the MCAT, students receive an official report that contains five scores. The four individual section results range from 118-132, which combine for a total score of 472-528.
Consult the AAMC percentile rank reports and your graduate school's admission requirements to determine your target MCAT score.
- How do you study for the MCAT?
Students should spend 200-300 hours preparing for the MCAT, creating a timeline that works for their schedule and learning styles. The AAMC provides free resources that can help you create a personalized study plan and strengthen your grasp of core theories and concepts. You can also find free practice tests through Khan Academy and The Princeton Review.
|Test Dates||The MCAT is offered multiple times every year. You can find official test dates on the AAMC's website.|
|Registration Deadline||Candidates have until eight days before an exam date to register. A student's registration date places them in the Gold, Silver, or Bronze Zone, which affects the fee amount and their ability to reschedule an exam and ask for a refund.|
Gold and Silver Zone students pay $320 to take the MCAT, while Bronze Zone candidates pay $375. To help students navigate the coronavirus pandemic, the AAMC is currently waiving rescheduling fees and offering full refunds for all 2020 test dates.
The association also operates a fee assistance program that supports financially disadvantaged students.
|Test Administration||Use the official search tool to find an MCAT testing center near you. The AAMC's website also contains information about test day policies and procedures. You must present valid identification, undergo digital palm scanning, and have your photo taken.|
Personal Statements and Essays
Personal statements let graduate schools get to know candidates on a deeper level. These essays are usually 500-800 words in length.
Topics differ by field of study and school. One of the most common prompts asks candidates to explain how enrolling in a particular program will help them achieve relevant career goals. Ph.D. programs typically focus their prompts on the student's research experience and how their academic interests fit with a faculty member's area of expertise.
While you may receive similar essay prompts from prospective schools, it is important that you customize these statements to connect to each program's distinct mission and culture. Support a clear narrative with personal anecdotes and current ideas and trends in the field.
Letters of Recommendation
A letter of recommendation provides in-depth insight into a candidate's personal characteristics and professional accomplishments. Master's and doctoral programs typically ask for 2-3 references. Prospective students should not submit more letters than requested, since busy committee members will usually ignore extraneous material.
Letters of recommendation can come from faculty, college advisors, internship supervisors, and employers. When deciding whom to ask, prioritize people who know you professionally, understand your goals, and can describe your work positively.
After you have chosen these sources, schedule a conversation to formally ask for a recommendation. Give your recommenders plenty of time to write letters, paying close attention to their upcoming schedule. To help them craft a persuasive recommendation, provide them with academic transcripts, personal statements, and a resume or CV.
Graduate School Interviews
While not all graduate schools require interviews, applicants should prepare for the possibility, especially if they are vying for a spot in a competitive program. Many doctoral programs require 30-minute interviews. In lieu of a campus visit, universities may conduct interviews using a video conferencing platform.
Through extensive research and practice, you can prepare to answer the most challenging interview questions. Analyze the department's website and reach out to administrators, faculty, and current students to identify major talking points. Make sure you understand the format of the interview, as some graduate schools prefer group interviews over a one-on-one approach.
Spend the bulk of your preparation time refining answers to common interview topics. These questions typically ask you to talk about your personal background, academic interest, and professional experience, as well as how these factors will help you succeed in and contribute to the program.
During the interview, provide personal stories and ask relevant questions concerning the program's priorities, culture, and funding.
After You Submit Your Graduate Application
Graduate schools that maintain a December or January deadline usually send out official replies around the middle of March. Programs that accept applications on a rolling basis take about eight weeks to make a decision. While you wait, analyze your financial status and other factors that will come into play should you need to relocate to pursue a master's or doctorate.
Graduate programs receive hundreds of applications from qualified candidates each year, so try not to take rejection personally. If you do get admitted, take the time to celebrate with loved ones and thank recommenders before evaluating your options, clarifying financial and curricular details as needed.
You usually have about a month to officially accept an offer; decision deadlines are typically around April 15 for fall enrollment.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is the acceptance rate for graduate school?
Colleges and universities publish their acceptance rates online, and you can access this information on their website. Graduate schools are generally more difficult to get into than undergraduate programs due to their smaller size.
- When should I expect a decision?
If your graduate school maintains a December or January deadline, expect a decision by the middle of March. Universities with a rolling-admissions process take about eight weeks to notify candidates.
- What GPA do I need for grad school?
Most doctoral programs require a minimum 3.0 GPA, while many master's programs require a 2.5 or higher. However, this cutoff varies greatly from program to program.
- What looks good on a grad school application?
Strong undergraduate grades and standardized test scores look good on an application. Master's programs often prioritize professional experience, while Ph.D. programs closely examine personal statements and CVs for research experience.
- When should I start applying for graduate school?
Begin researching potential graduate schools at least a year prior to your preferred enrollment date. Register to take standardized tests nine months before the deadline, giving yourself plenty of room to study for and retake an exam if necessary. Start gathering documents about three months before the application window closes, ensuring that your references have enough time to write engaging recommendation letters.