Sep 11, 2022

Graduate School Applications 101

Overview: Earning a graduate degree or certificate can make you stand out in the job market and prepare you for specialized positions.  For example, earning a doctorate can give you the credentials to be a research scientist at a national laboratory or a faculty member at a university.  I recently had the opportunity to attend a presentation titled “Grad School 101” by Ms. Alisha Johnson, a staff member in the Clemson University Graduate School. She provided an overview of what graduate school is and the key parts of any graduate program application in a way I found very helpful.  I got in touch with her, and we produced this post together using my notes taken and then adding in her additional comments. 


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy and Alisha Johnson, a domestic graduate admissions coordinator at the Clemson University Graduate School



Photo by Dan Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash
Maybe you have heard that graduate school is an option after college graduation but are not sure what it is or if you would be a good fit. If you are an undergraduate already in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field and are inquisitive, hard-working, persistent, passionate, and open-minded, then we think you might be the ideal candidate for a STEM graduate degree.  Attending a graduate program can help you become qualified for research positions, be a way for you to stand out from competition and gain additional personal satisfaction by allowing you a job with more intellectual freedom. The benefits to every student may be slightly different but, in all cases, it is extremely important to identify why you want to attend a graduate program and the long-term benefit you will receive from the investment of your time and capital.  Graduate school is an investment of your resources (time and financial) and having a clear goal will help you when you encounter challenges while completing your advanced degree. 


Types of advanced graduate degrees

STEM graduate programs typically offer doctoral degrees, master’s degrees, and certificates. 

·       A master’s degree (Master of Science or Master of Engineering) typically takes students 1-2 years to complete.  Students enrolling will have the option to complete a thesis or non-thesis option and typically need about 30 hours of coursework. 

·       A doctoral degree typical requires more time (4-7 years) and credits (60 credits).  All these diplomas require the completion of research and there is not an equivalent to the non-thesis MS degrees. 

·       Certificates are shorter, taking only 9-15 credits of course work, and do not require a research project.  This option is typically preferred by professionals in industry or current students expanding their expertise into a supplemental area. 


How to select a graduate program to attend

Choosing a graduate program to attend can be nerve racking.  However, your pick should tie closely to the ability of a program to help you reach your goals. That is, will a graduate program help you achieve your long-term goals and provide you will the experience needed to get your desired job.  Other factors also influence selection of a program include the location and how to fund them.  Graduate students in STEM fields are often supported by a mixture of assistantships, fellowships, and scholarships.  Those currently working full time may also fund their graduate work through an employment benefit. 


As you get ready to start the application process, we encourage you to look around.  Look at each program’s website and research the faculty.  Identify programs which have at least 2-3 faculty whose research interests you. Then, go ahead and start multiple dialogs with program coordinators to find out more.  Express your interest to each of them and once your formal application is in, you can visit the program in person to look around.  In some fields, it is common to be invited to visit the school once you have been accepted into the program.  Due to the expense, I would suggest visiting your top 1-2 institutions to ensure the right fit. 


Application components

Once you have determined where to apply and your motivation for pursuing graduate school, you will need to review the application deadlines for your chosen schools and start gathering all your application pieces.  Most universities will require the following in their application:

·       Transcripts: Unofficial (provided by the student) transcripts are usually all that is needed with the application. Official (provided by the issuing university) transcripts are generally required upon acceptance.

·       GRE scores: First, confirm that a standardized test is required; many schools are moving away from these tests. If it is required, then be sure to give yourself plenty of time to take the test and have the scores to the school to meet the deadline for submission. The GRE was created and administered by the Educational Testing Service that is designed to measure overall academic readiness for graduate school.

·       Recommendations: 2 or 3 faculty members, supervisors or another person who can speak directly towards your ability to complete a STEM advanced degree

·       Personal statement: Your opportunity to share who you are with the committee reviewing the application:

o   Generally, 1-2 pages but see what the application says and do not go over it!

o   Share your “why” for pursuing an advanced degree and include the type of research you will be interested in or faculty you would like to work with (1-2 paragraphs).

·       Resume or curriculum vita (CV).  These documents give an institution a better understanding of your background and include your education background, especially any research or work experience, honors, awards, extracurricular activities, etc. 

·       Interview: Some programs will require an interview, either in person or on zoom.

·       International students: Completing an English proficiency exam such as the TOEFL. Some schools will issue a waiver if you have an undergraduate degree from a US institution or country where English is the official language.


While this can seem like a lot of material to produce, it is manageable if you start the application process in early fall prior to your intended enrollment date. Once you complete drafts of the application components, you can get help and insight from others. They can help you strengthen your application portfolio through small adjustments such as highlighting a higher major GPA rather than cumulative GPA on your CV. 


Get started early (at least 4 months prior to application due date)

We really suggest that you give you self at least four months to apply to graduate school.  This time will allow you to really think develop a strong application packet. You should gather your resources (including friends, family, and mentors), make a list of action items that need to be done and finally add it to your calendar (the vital step).   For example, your list might include both preparing for the GRE by taking a class, scheduling a date to take the GRE, taking the GRE, and finally sending the scores to your schools of interest.  


Acknowledgements:  This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords.  She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at