Sep 9, 2022

Breaking your graduate program applications into manageable steps

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash
This post describes the steps that current undergraduates should take when applying to STEM graduate programs. This process can be overwhelming for undergraduates who are also trying to juggle the last semesters of their undergraduate degree programs, maintaining part-time jobs or volunteer positions, fulling obligations to sports teams, etc. In addition, they might feel stressed because they are undergoing a process that their close family and friends have not undergone or at least not undergone in recent decades. They might also feel pressure to get into the “right” graduate program so that they can later have the “perfect” career.


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy



While applying to graduate school may seem daunting, you can do this! Below are the steps that I suggest to undergraduates who come to my office wanting to discuss graduate school and how to apply.


Step 1: Find time in your schedule to work on graduate applications


  • First, set aside time to work on applications. On average, students tell me that their graduate application process took them 4-5 hours per week for 10 weeks starting the summer prior to their senior year. It sounds like a lot, but it is just 2.3% of your week. This time that you are setting aside will be used to:
  • Reflect on how you evolved or changed during your undergraduate program.
  • Identify the positions that you would like to obtain after graduate school careers you are interested in pursuing in the future
  • Determine what skills or training you need to qualify for the type of job you want. 
  • Strategize about the types of graduate programs you would want to attend or degrees you want to earn. 
  • Make a list of all the components of graduate applications that you will need to assemble (transcripts, personal statements, etc.).
  • Complete a first draft of those application components.
  • Go through a revision process to polish those components.
  • Submit your application packets.


I strongly encourage all students preparing applications to map the time dedicated to this process each week in a paper or digital calendar. Try to block off segments that are at least two hours to reduce the time you are transitioning into or out of the application process. It can take about 15 minutes to refocus when you switch tasks. If you’re used to setting a schedule like this, that’s wonderful. If you’re not used to it because you’ve been able to get by without closely managing your schedule or time in high school, this is great practice that you will probably need in college.


To make your time effective, you should make a point of putting away distractions (such as putting away phones) and working in a location where you will not be disturbed. That location will depend on your personality. Some of you will be OK to work in a coffee shop or in the middle of your kitchen. I personally cannot work in either of those locations because of all the people and noise!


Step 2: Create your (application) project plan


When engineers start on large projects, they are trained to develop a project plan that outlines how the project will be completed in a set timeframe using the designated resources. This plan typically has a series of phases with measurable objectives. Each phase should have a stated beginning or end time. I would suggest that your plan include the following phases:


Phase 1: Gather your resources and existing data

  • Identify three people who could help you during your graduate school application process. List anyone who could review your materials for spelling/grammar, those who could help you recall any awards/honors you’ve won, and those who could help you identify dream schools. I would suggest a faculty mentor (or two) and a close friend or family member with good editing skills.
  • Identify a list of eight graduate programs you are currently considering along with their application deadlines, and one thing you liked about each of those institutions. If you are pursuing a thesis-based masters or doctoral program, only apply to programs that have 2-3 faculty whose research programs intrigue you.  We ultimately think applying to five schools is ideal.  Later in the process, you will use your list of eight schools as a starting point in your discussions with a trusted mentor who can then help you identify five programs that match your interests and goals. 
  • Make a list of people who could write you letters of recommendation and send them a request. These should be people who know you well and be able to comment on your performance in school, athletics, community service, prior employment, and other roles that you have held. Send your request prior to identifying schools. Often these people get lots of requests and you want them to commit to you. It takes a letter writer 30-60 minutes per letter, so you are asking for eight hours of their time. (Check out a blog post on getting good letters of recommendations here.)
  • Make a list of all your extracurricular activities (sports, etc.).
  • Make a list of all the honors and awards you have received during your undergraduate degree.


Phase 2: Clarify the value of earning a graduate degree for yourself

  • You can Google this information, but I would suggest interviewing people who have earned the advanced degree you are pursuing. Setting up an interview (a.k.a. “coffee”) with that person allows you to ask them about their thought process, external influences when they made their decisions, etc. This information may not be clearly laid out in an article you run across in a Google search. Ask them how earning their MS/PhD impacted their career path, how they chose their research topics, graduate advisor, etc.   


Phase 3: Create a one-page résumé with educational experience, honors/awards, skills/proficiencies, sports, etc.


Phase 4: Refine your list of possible colleges or universities based on discussions with a faculty advisor. Take your list of graduate schools (and the 2-3 faculty at each whose work inspires you) to a trusted faculty member to discuss.  This person should be in your field so that they can guide you as to which ones will best help you obtain your goals and might be a good match. 


Phase 5: Start developing one of your essays using the application prompts from your favorite graduate program.  Start filling out the application to your top graduate program so that you can see their specific essay prompts.  Then start outlining your personal essay and potentially a research statement.  


Phase 6: Schedule a revision cycle for your application essays/statements. Have someone read your essay to identify any areas that need clarity as well as spelling errors and grammar errors. Then, using those comments, revise your essay and ask a second person to review this new draft. I would suggest having at least three people review your essay.


Phase 7: Get the applications for all schools on your list and fill out the forms.


Phase 8: Follow up with your letter of recommendation writers with deadlines for all schools, your résumé, and personal statement. Give them as much time as possible.


Phase 8: Send in the supporting documents including required test scores (GRE, TOFEL), transcripts, etc.


Phase 9: Submit applications, pay each application fee, and confirm receipt of application materials along with the support materials (transcripts, etc.). Some institutions may be able to waive application fees for students with financial need. It does not hurt to ask.


Phase 10: Thank the people who helped you during the application process. Send handwritten thank-you notes to recommendation writers. You will need these people to write letters for scholarships, etc. for the first few years of graduate school, and handwritten notes will mean a lot to them. I keep mine in a folder by my desk and flip through them occasionally. Stay in touch with your recommenders. I respond faster to requests of program alumni when they have sent me emails on what they are up to (research progress, travels, adopting a puppy, etc.).


Phase 11: Start working on your financial aid after your applications are submitted.  Some graduate assistantships are only available for students deemed as having financial need by their entries on the FAFSA.  However, students who were not considered as having financial need as undergraduates, may look different as graduate students.  That is typically because your dependency status changes.  graduate students are considered independent for financial aid purposes.  You can read more about that here.  


  • Make a note of the priority and regular financial aid deadlines.
  • Submit college aid form, if needed. 
  • Submit the FAFSA®.


Step 3: Complete your project plan!

Now that you have your plan and time to work on the components, you need to do it. It helps to have a close friend who is also applying, a faculty mentor or a student services coordinator who can check in on your progress. Ask them to check on your progress every few weeks so that you are accountable.


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